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NPR host talks race at winter commencement

By Peter Shahin, Editor in Chief
and Jennifer Calfas, Managing News Editor
Published December 15, 2013

In snowy shoes and colorful gowns, the University’s newest alumni received their diplomas at a joyful commencement ceremony Sunday.

Hundreds of graduates, both undergraduate and postgraduate, gathered inside the Crisler Center to receive recognition for their work and encouragement for their careers and further education ahead. The arena’s stands were filled with family and supporters who — despite the solemn decorum — let out more than a few cheers as names were called for the degree candidates.

On a stage filled with professors, deans, University executive officers and members of the University’s Board of Regents, speakers provided the newly minted alumni with a variety of perspectives on topics ranging from thoughts on surviving final exams to supporting public higher education to opening themselves up to conversations about race in modern society.

The event’s keynote speaker was Michele Norris, a noted NPR radio host, journalist and the founder of the Race Card Project — which seeks to capture individual perceptions of race in six words or less. The results are published anonymously online and have helped foster discussion on race relations at many institutions across the country, including at the University.

In her opening remarks, Norris paid tribute to Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first Black president who led a generations-long anti-apartheid struggle. Mandela passed away on Dec. 5 at the age of 95 at his home in South Africa after a battle with respiratory infection. Norris said his capacity to love and forgive his captors serves as an inspiration to the graduates.

“A few things happened this week that caused me to set aside some of the remarks that I carefully prepared a few weeks ago to focus on something else: an idea that is really more than a declaration, an outlook that can be summed up in a few simple words: Love wins. Love always wins,” she said.

Norris also addressed the importance of dialogue on race issues, noting that previous generations have done a “disservice” to modern society by making it a difficult subject to talk about.

“Do we see our diversity as a strength?” Norris said. “Racism is toxic, but race doesn’t have to be. Race is some way to describe who we are … there are all kinds of diversity.”

Norris was conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of her journalistic achievements and efforts to promote discussions on race. Five other individuals were also granted honorary degrees at the commencement ceremony in recognition of their lifetime achievements in their respective fields — including Lou Anna Simon, president of Michigan State University.

In her final winter commencement address, University President Mary Sue Coleman implored students to support Big 10 schools and public higher education institutions more generally. While she praised the graduates for their individual achievements and recognized their hard work, she said institutions like the University are under threat from flagging public financial support. She said, nationwide, states are spending an average of 28 percent less on each student than they did in 2008.

“As much as we compete with these schools, Big 10 universities are so much more than athletics,” Coleman said. “Our similarities far outweigh our differences, and that is our collective strength. It is your strength.”

Going so far as to ask students to support Michigan State University and Ohio State University, Coleman added that America’s strength lies in its public education and research institutions. She noted that in the Times Higher-Education World University rankings published earlier this year, American schools “dominated” the list. The University rose two places to rank 18th in the world.

“We are here for the next generation,” Coleman said. “We are an asset of the tremendous return on investment: you. With your degrees, you embody the value of public higher education.”

Coleman’s remarks echoed her address to upper-level graduates at Michigan State University Friday, where she served as the program’s commencement speaker. She was granted an honorary Doctor of Laws for her work in higher education.

LSA senior Tyler Jones spoke to the graduating class about the uncertainty of the future that lies ahead. However, as the graduates have learned to adapt to hardship and obstacles throughout their academic careers, Jones said they are prepared to face the unknown.

“Sometimes, even our best won’t be enough,” Jones said. “But, from the professors who taught us to create to the roommates who changed who we are and what we believe, this place has changed all of us. It has made us into the people that tomorrow needs, from uncertain economic future to a Washington, D.C. that just seems broken. Perhaps, more than ever, tomorrow needs Wolverines.”