Hillsdale College to host in-person graduation; AG office says event is prohibited

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Hillsdale — As COVID-19 cases rise in Michigan, Hillsdale College plans a commencement celebration this weekend with masks and social distancing — leading the governor's office to say she is "gravely concerned" and the Attorney General's Office to call the gathering illegal.

The private, conservative college in southern Michigan known for eschewing government funding rescheduled its May commencement to this weekend, with festivities beginning Thursday.

Hundreds of chairs line the field in preparation for a graduation commencement ceremony at Frank "Muddy" Waters Stadium, at Hillsdale College, in Hillsdale, July 16, 2020.

Hillsdale is the first-known college in Michigan to host an in-person commencement ceremony since the global pandemic arrived in Michigan in March. The school's plans have drawn condemnation as well as praise for the precautions officials are taking to host the events.

In an email obtained by The Detroit News, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn told students this week that he met with senior class officers about commencement plans and had a spirited discussion about the importance of the ceremony, and outlined how the college would take precautions amid the pandemic.

"Commencement is the most significant event in the life of a college," Arnn wrote. "As old as the first universities, this milestone represents the conclusion of the College’s labor and also inaugurates an even greater undertaking: each graduate’s commencing to live a good and happy life in accordance with the highest principles, a life for which they have spent four years preparing."

It was not immediately clear how many people were expected at the graduation ceremony. Emily Stack Davis, a college spokeswoman, called the attendance a "moving target" and did not provide a specific number.

A student has her photograph taken wearing her graduation mortarboard at Hillsdale College, in Hillsdale, July 16, 2020.

Ryan Jarvi, press secretary for the Michigan Department of Attorney General Dana Nessel, said organized gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited in the part of the state where Hillsdale College is located.

"Such events clearly show a lack of consideration for the dangerous threat this virus presents," Jarvi said. "Should this event proceed, we trust the local law enforcement agencies to exercise their authority and discretion in their enforcement efforts." 

Hillsdale County Sheriff Tim Parker said his office has not enforced any of the governor's orders during this pandemic and has no intent to do so now.

“We are really busy here, dealing with a lot of problems in this community," Parker said. "We are not going to an event like the one at Hillsdale College and go in there ... in an effort to enforce that order and issue tickets.

"We just don’t have the manpower, nor is that a top priority of our community."

Rebecca Burns, health officer for the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency could not be reached Thursday. But she told Crain's Detroit Business the college informed her of its plans, and she was unhappy to learn that participants would be traveling in from across the country.

"I have no words for how disappointing it is to me that the college would put the Hillsdale community at such risk," Burns said.

Joseph Eisenberg, professor and chair of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said college officials consulted him about how to host the event and that they are taking informed precautions. 

"Given that they want to do this, they are being thoughtful about how to do it safely," Eisenberg said. "Whether or not it is a good idea in the first place is another question. It is dependent on what is happening in the state. In the context of (Michigan) seeing rising cases right now, one wants to be more cautious."

At the same time, Eisenberg noted that the Black Lives Matter demonstrations after the death of George Floyd drew hundreds of protesters out on the street together around the globe. But there has not been evidence of a spike in the virus as a result of those events.

"Most of the time we see outbreaks, it’s an indoor setting, at big parties, bars, nursing homes, factory settings," Eisenberg said. "That is not to say there isn’t transmission (during) outdoor events."

Hillsdale College is home to 1,468 undergraduates representing nearly every state, along with 11 foreign countries, according to the college's website. While nearly one-third of students are from Michigan, 69% hail from outside the state.

On Thursday afternoon, students were arriving for the weekend's festivities with cars filling almost every parking spot near the center of campus.  Few people wore masks, though they practiced social distancing.

American flags lined the street curbsides, together with signs advising attendees to wear a mask and stay six feet from others. Not many people were walking around, but those who were seemed undeterred by COVID-19. College personnel sporting blue-collared shirts zipped around in golf carts setting up for the upcoming commencement.

Several students declined to discuss plans for the graduation. An email was circulating among the seniors from college administrators, directing them not to speak to the media.

 In his email, Arnn told students on Tuesday that he was looking forward to the festivities, but they come as "Michigan’s governor tightened mask and distance restrictions, thereby complicating the proceedings." 

Arnn told students to wear a mask whenever they are indoors and also when they are outside if they are unable to maintain a physical distance of six feet from others. The college said it would provide a mask to those who do not have one. If someone is not wearing a mask, college officials would "respectfully assume that you have a medical condition that exempts you from the governor’s mandate," Arnn wrote.

A Saturday ceremony is planned for outdoors with chairs spaced six feet apart. Those in attendance would be subject to screening for COVID-19 symptoms, such as a high temperature, at stations around the campus.

He also suggested that those who are sick, have had the virus, are older than 70 or have a compromised immune system should not attend the ceremony.

The attorney general's spokesman said the pandemic has upended normal operations at colleges.

"We sympathize with those who want to celebrate the success of college graduates," Jarvi said, "but the unfortunate circumstances surrounding this pandemic have made that difficult for many, and we encourage alternatives to large assemblies that could further jeopardize the health of many people."

Festivities for graduation at Hillsdale began Thursday, with students picking up their caps and gowns. A cocktail hour, sunset dinner and afterglow were planned later Thursday, according to an informal calendar obtained by The News.

On Friday, seniors will paint the sidewalk, faculty will gather for a mixer and luncheon, and practice will be held for commencement. The day will end with a reception with the president and a midnight dinner. 

Saturday will include the commencement ceremony, followed by a reception.

The college is planning a commencement celebration this weekend with masks and social distancing despite concerns about COVID-19 and a warning from the state attorney general that the event would be illegal.

Hillsdale College's decision comes as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday that COVID-19 cases have on an uptick in Michigan and the state is at a "turning point" in the fight. She encouraged residents to wear masks in compliance with an executive order that mandates their use in businesses or large gatherings to mitigate the virus' spread.

Zack Pohl, communications director for Whitmer, said the governor "does not direct particular enforcement actions and has not done so here." 

"She, of course, is gravely concerned whenever people disregard her executive orders, especially as case counts escalate in the state and we are witnessing a nationwide surge in cases. There's no excuse for not taking the health of our fellow Michiganders seriously.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 71,842 cases of COVID-19 and 6,101 deaths through Thursday. When probable cases are added, Michigan's case tally reaches 79,839 and 6,348 deaths. 

Hillsdale County, meanwhile, has had 200 cases, 15 probable cases and 25 deaths linked to the virus.

The college said it has taken many steps to make the campus safe, including needlepoint bipolar ionization technology — installed in campus HVAC systems to kill mold, bacteria and viruses within buildings. It will also sanitize seating and surfaces with bleach between events and set up a link to livestream the event.

Its press release said the college shared its plans not only with graduates and guests but with state officials.

"More than one month prior to the event, the college notified Governor Gretchen Whitmer and her team of its intention to hold commencement ceremonies and related activities on campus during the week of July 12," the press release said.

"The college also continued to work with local law enforcement and health officials; the state Attorney General’s office likewise suggested this was the appropriate and necessary step."

Workers help prepare for a graduation commencement ceremony at Frank "Muddy" Waters Stadium, at Hillsdale College, in Hillsdale, July 16, 2020. The college is planning a commencement celebration this weekend with masks and social distancing despite concerns about COVID-19 and a warning from the state attorney general that the event would be illegal.

Hillsdale College's decision contrasts with other schools that have opted to have virtual celebrations honoring graduates. 

Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, said none of the 15 public universities in the state have hosted an in-person commencement ceremony. 

Robert LeFevre, president of Michigan Independent Colleges & Universities, added he is not aware of any in-person graduation ceremony held by the 25 nonprofit colleges and universities that it represents.

"We have been very careful and safe when it comes to our students and are not risking any additional in-person activity that is not necessary or is in violation of the CDC guidelines or the governor's orders," LeFevre said.

Asked what he thought about Hillsdale's commencement ceremony, he said, "Hillsdale is Hillsdale.

"They will always be Hillsdale," LeFevre said. "They have a very strong Libertarian streak. Their compass guides them. We wish them the best of luck."

Oakland University — which postponed its commencement ceremony to the weekend of Aug. 28 — reviewed several options for commencement including an in-person ceremony.

But it opted for a drive-in ceremony instead.

"The ongoing virus pandemic was of paramount importance in our planning, as was the fact we were determined to comply with the governor's executive orders on public gatherings," said Stephanie J. Lee, administrative associate in the Oakland University Office of the Provost and Academic Affairs.

Lee emphasized that even though Oakland University will have four separate ceremonies to spread out the size of the in-car gatherings, masks will be required to participate.

Hillsdale's website says if rain forces the event from outside, graduates, faculty and parents will be moved to the Biermann Athletic Center. 

Other guests could watch commencement via livestream in either the Plaster Auditorium, Searle Center, Lane Classrooms or a large tent in the quad. Capacity limitations will apply.

Hillsdale College's decision comes after officials announced plans weeks ago to host classes on campus in the fall.

Its press release asserts that a graduation ceremony is "an 'expressive activity' protected by the First Amendment."

"It is a ceremony rich with symbolism and meaning," the college said. "Since 1856, the College has exercised those rights by holding annual commencement exercises — including during the Civil War, World War I, the 1918 Pandemic, the Great Depression and World War II.

"Despite the trauma of those times, which have been particularly severe on this campus, Hillsdale College has stood by the ceremony as the culminating meaning of the work of the college and as indispensable to its mission."

Jeff King, a former Hillsdale resident, said he believes in freedom but thinks the college is being selfish by bringing in students and their families from across the county to use the restaurants, hotels and other services in a community that was once a rural COVID-19 hot spot.

"It is extremely reckless," said King, the owner of an engineering company now living near Holland. "The Constitution and science are not mutually exclusive. You simply don’t take risks. It is not the time to do that."


Staff Writer Cal Abbo contributed.