BY JOSEPH LICHTERMAN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 28, 2010
Though it was only announced last month that President Barack Obama would be the speaker at this spring's commencement, University officials have been communicating with the White House since last April to try to get the president to speak at the Big House.
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According to documents obtained by The Michigan Daily through a Freedom of Information Act request, University President Mary Sue Coleman first contacted Alyssa Mastromonaco, White House director of scheduling and advance, on April 30, 2009.
Following the initial letter, Coleman sent a formal invitation directly to Obama last September. In her letter to Obama, Coleman highlighted the University’s history as one of the premier public universities in the country.
Coleman also encouraged the president to come to Ann Arbor by referencing the University’s commitment to topics important to his administration like economic expansion, developing alternative energy sources, sustainability and health care.
“The University of Michigan vigorously pursues the many issues our nation faces and that you are tackling as president,” Coleman wrote to Obama in her September letter. “Your visit would inspire and motivate continued progress in these areas.”
In her letter, Coleman also referenced visits by other presidents, including John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the steps of the Michigan Union. Kennedy, who was campaigning at the time, stood before a crowd of students at 2 a.m. to announce his plans to create the Peace Corps.
“That night, and in the days and weeks that followed (Kennedy’s speech), the enthusiastic response of our students helped propel that brief speech into a major national program,” Coleman wrote in the letter. “Today’s students are no less dedicated, and they would be thrilled for you to challenge them directly to meet the demands of the 21st century, as their forbears were by John F. Kennedy.”
Coleman added that the University not only has ties to past presidents but to Obama’s administration as well.
“I would be remiss to close without conveying how extremely proud we are of the many University of Michigan alums working for you and your administration, who could serve as a valuable resource as you consider this invitation,” she wrote.
But Coleman was not the only one who lobbied the president to come to campus. A group of 30 campus leaders sent a letter to Obama requesting that he speak at the Big House.
The letter from University students discussed students’ experiences on election night in 2008, when they celebrated on the Diag after Obama’s victory was announced.
“And there we stood, all united as students of University of Michigan who had witnessed history being made; shouting in one voice, ‘YES WE DID!’” the students wrote. “As members and representatives of the upcoming graduating class of the University of Michigan, we feel a special connection to this great day in American history.”
LSA senior Rebekah Sharpe, assistant secretary of the University’s chapter of the NAACP and a signatory of the letter, said she started an initiative last summer to invite Obama to this year’s spring commencement.
Sharpe said she was put in touch with Coleman’s office, which was already in the process of recruiting Obama, and the student representatives on the University’s Honorary Degree Committee, the group responsible for determining the commencement speaker and those who will receive honorary degrees during the commencement ceremony.
“I worked with the project manager at the president’s office, and then we met with the student representatives of the Honorary Degree Committee to cultivate an innovative and creative campaign to make the University of Michigan stand out,” Sharpe said.
Business junior Alex Serwer, one of the two student representatives on the Honorary Degree Committee and a signatory of the letter to Obama, said the letter was written as a way to show student support, without alerting the entire student body, which may have been disappointed if Obama declined the request.
“We devised a plan so it wouldn’t get out to the general public, because we didn’t want students to get all excited about it and then be disappointed about it if he decided not to come,” Serwer said. “But, instead, in order to show we had student support, we decided that writing a letter to the White House would be something that would be more appropriate.”
Michigan football player David Moosman said in a phone interview last week that he signed the letter because he believes Obama’s speech at the Big House will be “historic.”
“It’s a time of rejuvenation for the country, and Obama, I think, is leading that,” Moosman said. “Him speaking and giving his wisdom and words to the next class of leaders in the community and in the global market will be inspiring and, for lack of a better word, useful.”
Engineering senior Meha Pandey, the president of the Society of Women Engineers, said she signed the letter because she thought it was important for students to show the administration that they wanted Obama to be their commencement speaker.
“I think it’s a great opportunity not only for my graduating class but to have the president of the United States come to this campus, and it kind of brings recognition toward the University and makes us realize that Michigan is great,” Pandey said.
Lisa Connolly, project manager in Coleman’s office, also had frequent contact with Mastromonaco, according to the documents obtained through the FOIA request.
On Nov. 6, 2009, Connolly wrote to the White House and enclosed two previously sent invitations to Obama to speak at commencement and a previously sent invitation for Obama to come to Ann Arbor from Oct. 13 to 15, 2010 to participate in events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the Peace Corps.
Connolly’s other correspondences with the White House, which included an e-mail dated Dec. 18, 2009 and a letter dated Jan. 29, 2010, were both inquiries regarding the timing of any decision made about attending commencement.
Connolly also wrote that Obama’s presence at commencement would send an unparalleled message to the graduates.
“We believe President Obama’s presence at the University of Michigan this spring would provide an unsurpassable send-off to our graduates as they enter a workforce laden with challenges,” she wrote.
University officials announced that Obama would be the commencement speaker on Feb. 11, 2010. Commencement will be held on May 1 at 11 a.m. Approximately 3,500 undergraduates will be graduating and, according to a Feb. 11 Daily article, more than 40,000 friends and family members of graduates are expected to attend.