In-person rally targets UM's virtual graduation ceremony

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Due to foreseen circumstance, there will be minimal pomp as the University of Michigan holds its spring graduation ceremony online May 1.

In front of the venerable Michigan Union Saturday afternoon, as car horns honked in support, a small gathering of parents and students requested a few more bells and whistles.

We're offering a great deal on all-access subscriptions. Check it out here.

Two or three dozen strong, they made their case for an in-person commencement for the Class of 2021 — "a SAFE, OPT-IN graduation ceremony," as their freshly printed maize and blue placards said.

Mary DiFranco of Sterling Heights reacts as a motorist honks in support of in-person safe graduation in front of the Michigan Union on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday, March 6, 2021.

"We're the Big House," said Judy Etsios of Grosse Pointe Farms, one of the three organizers, whose son Nicholas is in the Ross School of Business. “We can fit 107,000 people. What’s the excuse for not being able to fit a couple of thousand grads?”

UM President Mark Schlissel announced on Feb. 4 that the COVID-19 pandemic would force the May 1 ceremony to be virtual. "We very much wish that we could hold a safe commencement in Michigan Stadium," he said at the time, but caution outweighed custom for the second straight year.

Schlissel said his decision came after consultation with students and public health experts. The protesters, mostly parents, pointed out that other universities are finding a way to hold graduation — and that no one had asked the people who write the tuition checks.

"It’s all about our graduates," Etsios said, "but as parents we get disappointed about things, too."

Alex Ortega, left, and his wife, Maria Ortega, carry signs in support of in-person graduation in Ann Arbor on Saturday, March 6, 2021.

The rally, from about 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, was spawned from a Facebook group called University of Michigan Class of 2021 Parents. Mary DiFranco of Sterling Heights said she saw it mentioned online and immediately texted her daughter, Claire, with an enthusiastic suggestion that they both attend.

Claire, studying kinesiology and dance, had to make due with year-old data in her major and saw performances cancelled in her minor. Her mom, protesting for the first time since she rose in defense of a wetlands back in high school, stood at the State Street curb waving a sign, beaming as the driver of a Ford F-150 responded with three deep toots.

"I know how hard these kids work," Mary DiFranco said. "Especially at Michigan, where it's hard to even get in. They want to walk through that tunnel into the stadium."

It's true, said Claire, 20 yards away and a few yards further from traffic: in this case, the tunnel was also the light. "Knowing we were going to graduate at the Big House got me through a lot of tests, a lot of hard times."

Parents Wendy Haase, left, and Tammy Dahlstrom support in-person graduation ceremonies during a rally in front of the Michigan Union on Saturday, March 6, 2021.

The parents have been keeping tabs on other schools and can list many of the major institutions where commencement is scheduled to commence with students present, even if parents are excluded at some of them — Purdue, Indiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Oklahoma.

Michigan State announced Friday that it plans to hold in-person ceremonies across three weekends beginning April 30-May 2, distilling its new graduates in small batches at assorted campus parking lots.

UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the Wolverines' situation is different in that "with nearly half of undergraduate students from out of state, we did not believe we could safely ask students and their families to gather in Ann Arbor to celebrate commencement."

Tammy Dahlstrom of North Muskegon, another organizer, said parents will show up anyway. They have non-refundable reservations for air and lodging, and a non-negotiable need to be with their kids on such a monumental occasion.

Lan and Thao Nguyen of McLean, Virginia, were holding signs Saturday, and they plan to be back in Ann Arbor for graduation, holding back tears.

The rally happened to coincide with a visit, said Lan, whose daughter Caroline was up the block trying not to be embarrassed by her parents' passion. Graduation is a must, he said, whether they see it in a socially distanced throng at the football stadium or at their Airbnb.

"Why not lend some voice, as long as we're here?" he said. "The university has had a whole year to plan for this. They should find a common sense approach."

The Nguyens were wearing dark cold-weather gear. Etsios, the co-planner, was clad in loyalty — Block M sneakers, maize and blue stocking cap, similarly themed handbag and mask. She had enthusiastically signed an online petition, launched by a senior from Florida and supported by 5,400 people and counting, calling for an in-person graduation.

Etsios said she was encouraged by an announcement Thursday that graduates would be allowed into Michigan Stadium for socially distanced photos, beginning April 6. But as a parent who spent four years picturing a ceremony at the Big House, it's just the beginning of a procession in the right direction.

Referencing one of the nation's best known fight songs, she issued a polite challenge to the victors valiant:

"Show us how you're going to lead and be the best."

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn