UM faces backlash over lack of commencement speaker

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Graduating seniors at the University of Michigan have been inspired by keynote speakers ranging from former President Barack Obama to General Motors CEO Mary Barra to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

But that tradition is changing this year as UM honors the Class of 2017 and its bicentennial with a video and multimedia presentation — sparking a backlash among some students.

“I am proud to be a part of the University’s 200-year history, and many of my memories here have been among the set of traditional Wolverine experiences,” senior Elisabeth Brennan wrote this week in The Michigan Daily. “However, many more have been the result of my place as a student at this particular time, whether contributing to campus-wide Snapchat stories or marching in November’s post-election walk-outs. A video of current faculty and students reading decades- and centuries-old speeches will not capture these unique experiences and certainly will not honor them ... Rather than celebrating the graduates — the express purpose of a commencement ceremony — the University is hijacking our day in order to celebrate itself.”

Instead of one speaker, the April 29 ceremony in Michigan Stadium will feature several in a seven-minute video/multimedia show that will include two parts: historic commencement addresses delivered at UM and the words of others woven into one speech, according to Malcolm Tulip, assistant professor of theatre and drama in School of Music, Theatre and Dance and producer of the multimedia event.

The presentation will include speeches delivered in the past at UM that still resonate today, featuring the words of luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, former President Gerald Ford, journalist Mike Wallace and former UM President James Angell, Tulip said.

They will be performed live by current university dignitaries such as UM Vice President for Student Life E. Royster Harper, professor emeritus Ralph Williams and economics lecturer Edward Cho, winner of this year’s Golden Apple Award for outstanding teaching.

“As we go forward, we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” said Tulip. “In my research for this event, I was constantly struck by the immediacy and relevance of the speeches of the past to our work and lives today both on and off the campus. As the world moved through periods of prosperity and times of great challenge, speakers at the University of Michigan had their fingers on the pulse of the student body and the nation. In putting this collage together, with words from the past and voices from our university colleagues, I hope we can all recognize and celebrate the impressive lineage of which we are a part.”

UM spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said university officials are aware that the plans for the unique ceremony this year have raised concerns among some that graduation will not feel special.

“The goal is to celebrate the achievements of our graduates and make this a truly memorable experience for the students of our bicentennial-year class,” Broekhuizen said. “We remain confident that when the ceremony concludes, graduates and their families will have a sense of their own exceptional place in the university’s history.”

The ceremony will include other breaks from tradition, such as allowing students to sit on the football field during the ceremony to allow for more family members and friends to attend.

All students partcipating in the commencement ceremonies must have tickets, which will become available on April 10.