A group of parents and students gathered in front of the Michigan Union Saturday afternoon to protest the University of Michigan’s decision to hold a virtual 2021 spring commencement ceremony in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Around 20 protesters — many holding signs and megaphones — called on passersby and vehicles to support an in-person graduation.
Mary DiFranco, parent of a U-M senior, waved maize and blue signs given out to all participants that read, “HONK to support UMich Class of 2021 IN-PERSON, SAFE OPT-IN Grad Ceremony.”
“I’ll do whatever it takes to help these kids out,” DiFranco told The Daily. “It doesn’t have to be grand, it doesn’t have to have parents there. … As time goes on and more data comes in, people will realize it can be done.”
While many cars honked in support of the rally, people on the sidewalk mostly did not interact with the protesters.
The University announced Thursday that social justice activist and lawyer Bryan Stevenson will be the commencement speaker this spring. The University is also hosting an opt-in, socially distanced photo opportunity in the Big House for 2021 graduates to take pictures with graduating friends and classmates. The University has also stated that any graduates from the class of 2020 and 2021 are welcome to come back for future in-person celebrations.
The protest comes after a petition to allow an opt-in in-person graduation picked up over 5,000 signatures. Public Policy senior Tal Lipkin, organizer of the petition, wrote on the petition that the opportunity for in-person pictures was an “exciting commencement update.”
“This is an amazing update and it’s completely due to all of your efforts in communicating with the administration,” Lipkin wrote to those who signed the petition. “In fact, this idea was proposed by numerous students and parents and included on the one-pager I discussed with President Schlissel. I wanted to thank you all so much for your continuous support and acknowledge that this a huge win! Over the coming weeks there will be more announcements regarding smaller, in-person events so make sure to keep an eye out for emails from the administration.”
The state of Michigan’s current epidemic order, which is effective March 5 through April 19, restricts capacity at outdoor facilities like the Michigan Stadium to 1,000 people if people are spaced six feet apart and wearing masks. When the University announced its plans for a virtual graduation in February, the restriction was 250 people. By May, it is estimated that enough vaccine supply will exist to cover every American adult, though it will take additional time to administer those doses.
Engineering senior Nick Dziadzio attended the protest and said he wants to have an in-person graduation, even if it has to be split up by major.
“We want to just be able to have an in-person graduation after all the hard work we put in throughout the four years of being here,” Dziadzio said. “Any way possible would be great.”
Kinesiology senior Claire Difranco also attended and said she is willing to take any necessary precautions to have an in-person graduation.
“If someone is really willing to go they’ll get tested before, make sure we double mask,” Difranco said. “I’m more than willing to do what they ask me just to be able to be in person.”
COVID-19 test results from the U-M testing program typically take between 24-48 hours to deliver results, so it’s not clear that pre-testing would prevent transmission associated with an in-person ceremony. Due to the coronavirus’s incubation period, someone could test negative ahead of the event and be contagious at the event.
Tammy Dahlstrom, one of the rally organizers and a U-M parent, said students are tired of online activities and deserve a safe, in-person ceremony. Dahlstrom also noted that U-M Dearborn and Michigan State University recently announced small, in-person commencement ceremonies broken up by department.
“The kids are not interested in a Zoom graduation,” Dahlstrom said. “They’re tired of Zoom. They’re tired of being online. They’re online for six to 10 hours every day with classes. They don’t want to watch your presentation. We have the largest stadium in the country. There’s no reason whatsoever that they can’t make it work. They just need to be creative. They need to think out of the box.”
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald told The Detroit News that unlike other schools, the University is unique 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.”
Dahlstrom said she is one of many parents who have contacted University President Mark Schlissel’s office and the Board of Regents to voice their disappointment in the graduation plans. Dahlstrom said despite this, members of the administration have held steady on their plans for virtual commencement.
In response to Dahlstrom’s message to Schlissel’s office, Lauren McKenna, event associate with the Office of University and Development Events, replied on Feb. 22 that public health measures in May are unknown and that it’s impossible to predict infection and vaccination rates, travel guidelines and state and local restrictions on gathering size. Dahlstrom shared the email with The Daily.
The University made the decision for a virtual commencement in February so families would be able to plan accordingly and U-M staff would have time to arrange a high-quality virtual ceremony, McKenna said.
“The health and well-being of our community is our highest priority,” McKenna wrote to Dahlstrom. “Large gatherings are not safe right now. The COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly, and before asking so many individuals to travel and gather in celebration, we want it to be safe.”
Judy Etsios, parent of a U-M senior, said her family was coming to town to celebrate regardless of the commencement format.
“Last year I set up hotel reservations, we’re gonna have a dinner, so I didn’t cancel any of that because I figured no matter what we’re going to celebrate them, and it seems like a lot of parents feel that way,” Etsios said.
LSA senior Naomi Goodman, who walked by the protest but did not participate, said she was disappointed but not surprised when she learned graduation will be virtual this year. Goodman said she was still appreciative of the University’s efforts to make the day special.
“I appreciate the photo opportunity that they just announced and the speakers,” Goodman said. “But I get that it’s a big burden on the Ann Arbor community to have a bunch of families traveling here (for commencement).”
LSA junior Jill Stecker, who also walked by the protest, also said she was not surprised that spring commencement will be virtual this year.
“It makes no sense to be protesting this when it’s from a public health perspective,” Stecker said. “The most important part of graduating is probably spending time with family, and I think that that can be done within the comfort of your own home.”
When asked about the University’s plan to allow graduates of the class of 2020 and 2021 to participate in future in-person graduation ceremonies, Stecker said she’d be fine with her graduation having more people participating.
“If things are better by then, it may mean (a) longer graduation, and so be it,” Stecker said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that family members will be allowed at the Michigan Stadium photo opportunity. The University has stated that due to current limitations on in-person gatherings, it is only allowing graduating students to attend the event.
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