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The University of Michigan welcomed 2020 and 2021 graduates who missed out on normal graduation ceremonies due to the COVID-19 pandemic for Saturday’s “Comeback Commencement” in the Big House, featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci as commencement speaker.
Fauci, who currently serves as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to the U.S. president, has remained a prominent — and to some, controversial — figure throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regent Jordan Acker (D) presented Fauci with an honorary Doctor of Science degree, as recommended by the Board of Regents.
In his commencement speech, Fauci spoke about the extreme polarization and “normalization of untruths” that he has witnessed while working as a public health official in Washington, D.C.
“What troubles me is that differences of opinion or ideology have, in certain circumstances, been reflected by egregious distortions of reality,” Fauci said. “Sadly, elements of our society have grown increasingly unfazed by a cacophony of falsehood and lies that often stand largely unchallenged, ominously leading to an insidious acceptance of what I call the ‘normalization of untruths.’ We see this happen daily, propagated through a range of information platforms, social medias and so-called news organizations. And sad to say, certain elected officials in positions of power.”
Fauci called on graduates to push back against these falsehoods and maintain a critical eye for the information they receive.
“Do not shrug your shoulders and accept the normalization of untruths,” Fauci said. “Because if you do, lies become dominant and reality is distorted. And then truth means nothing. Integrity means nothing. Facts mean nothing.”
Fauci closed with optimistic remarks about the future, encouraging the audience to embrace that which brings them joy.
“Allow yourselves to cultivate this joy as much as you do your professional accomplishments,” Fauci said. “Think upon your future as that stated by the American political theorist, John Homer Shaar, and I quote, ‘The future is not someplace we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.’”
The audience gave a standing ovation following Fauci’s remarks. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, 2020 graduate Austin Thompson said he thought the speech was “very inspirational.”
Though Fauci received a warm welcome within the Big House, a few dozen were gathered outside of the stadium to protest his presence at the commencement. Loud honking on surrounding streets could be heard throughout the day, though the ceremony continued uninterrupted.
The commencement also featured remarks from Interim University President Mary Sue Coleman. In what is anticipated to be her final address to U-M graduates as president, Coleman touched on lessons learned over the past two years.
“The global pandemic of the past two-plus years has come with many lessons,” Coleman said. “We’ve learned the importance of science and the need for truth and accuracy. We better understand public health protocols and how to prevent the spread of disease … Yet we’ve also had a stronger appreciation for the human connections with colleagues, friends and family. And in matters large and small, we have learned that life does not always go as we hope. And yet, we adapt and persevere.”
Rackham Dean Michael J. Solomon led the hooding ceremony of doctoral recipients to recognize and honor those who received a doctorate degree from the University. Coleman and the deans of the University’s schools and colleges then invited all bachelor’s and master’s graduates to walk across the stage.
Actor and 2020 graduate Joe Serafini, best known for his role in Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” performed a piano rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “The Climb” during the ceremony, with the crowd singing along. The commencement also featured performances by the U-M Jazz Septet and the Michigan Fanfare Band.
Prior to the ceremony, 2020 graduate Duncan Bjerke told The Daily about his excitement for the event and the University.
“I’m really excited to be back,” Bjerke said. “It was always my dream to go to the University of Michigan, and to be able to be here and to graduate from here, it’s a dream come true.”
Other graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 shared similar sentiments. 2020 graduate Jonatan Martinez said he was happy to finally be able to celebrate and share this moment with his family.
“I’m feeling pretty excited, I’m really glad that the University held (this event),” Martinez said. “I’m the first person in my family to graduate with a master’s degree. And so they’re out here (today) and I’m just euphoric and glad to be able to celebrate this academic milestone.”
Summer News Editor Irena Li can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org