Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg touched on multiple topics of national discussion — including free speech on college campuses and the tone of the 2016 presidential election — in his Spring Commencement address Saturday morning, to a mixed response from the crowd.
Bloomberg, who also founded business news organization Bloomberg L.P. and recently considered a third-party run for the presidency, told the assembled graduates and families that fostering an environment on college campuses that allows for a variety of opinions is important.
On the topic of safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions, Bloomberg said such mechanisms prevent students from learning about difficult experiences they will encounter outside of the University of Michigan.
“The fact that some university boards and administrations now bow to pressure and shield students from these ideas through ‘safe spaces,’ ‘code words’ and ‘trigger warnings’ is, in my view, a terrible mistake,” Bloomberg said. “The whole purpose of college is to learn how to deal with difficult situations — not run away from them. A microaggression is exactly that: micro.”
His remarks came after University President Mark Schlissel told graduates that he has been proud to see students hold the administration accountable about free speech and discrimination, referencing outcry over the University’s response to anti-Islam chalkings found on the Diag in March.
Many students and faculty members have expressed concern over the past month about the chalkings and, in some cases, the University’s response to them. Several students who gathered to wash off the chalkings said they found the messages upsetting and disturbing, and expressed disappointment that the University didn’t take immediate action to clean off the chalk. A letter in April signed by 480 faculty members condemned the chalkings, but also praised the University’s response to them.
Schlissel has responded to the incident publicly several times, emphasizing the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, but also noting the campus free speech policy. In his remarks Saturday, he thanked students for standing against the chalkings.
“I saw our students step up again when many of you denounced anti-Islam chalkings on the Diag and offered support to your fellow students,” he said. “You made us better by upholding one of the greatest values to which we aspire. Discrimination has no place at the University of Michigan.”
Bloomberg devoted a significant part of his address to the discussions about free speech campuses nationwide have faced after incidents like the anti-Islam chalkings, cautioning against limiting expression.
“One of the most dangerous places on a college campus is a safe space because it creates the false impression that we can insulate ourselves from those who hold different views,” Bloomberg said. “In the global economy, and in a democratic society, an open mind is the most valuable asset you can possess.”
His remarks drew a mixed response from the assembled crowd of graduates and parents, with both noticeable booing and clapping throughout the Big House, and a multitude of comments on social media. During several parts of Bloomberg’s speech, students could be heard yelling epithets at him.
Kevin Kinney, a newly graduated School of Information graduate student, said after the ceremony that he disagreed with Bloomberg’s comments on microaggressions.
“I do think the idea of microaggressions is real,” he said. “I don’t think it was very wise to minimize that. I get his point about learning different viewpoints and that’s what a university is supposed to be.”
Newly graduated LSA senior Grant Goodstein said he enjoyed Bloomberg’s speech but noted that not everyone around him did.
“I was glad that he said things that were maybe a little bit controversial — wasn’t afraid to say them,” Goodstein said. “There was definitely a mixed reaction from the students, but I think that’s great to have and opens up some conversations.”
Beyond college campuses, Bloomberg also highlighted in his address the concept of free speech in a number of other arenas, including the current election, his experiences as mayor in banning smoking in New York restaurants and a student claim about limitation of speech in The Michigan Daily.
Speaking to the 2016 election, Bloomberg said demagoguery and extremism have become prevalent in campaign discourse.
“Our country is facing serious and difficult challenges, but rather than offering realistic solutions, candidates in both parties are blaming our problems on easy targets who breed resentment,” Bloomberg said. “For Republicans, it’s Mexicans here illegally and Muslims. And for Democrats, it’s the wealthy and Wall Street.”
Referencing policy points of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), he told grads they shouldn’t believe promises of free things.
“When a populist candidate promises free college, free health care, and a pony, or another candidate promises to make other countries pay for our needs, remember: those who promise you a free lunch will invariably eat you for breakfast,” he said. “If there were simple solutions to complex problems, we wouldn’t have those problems.”
Bloomberg’s speech also had several lighter notes; in opening his remarks, he said he had arrived in Ann Arbor Friday night to experience campus and gone “straight to Ricks’.”
“From there, I got a pie and cheesy bread from Pizza House,” he continued, listing city businesses and landmarks. “A sandwich at Zingerman’s — even I could barely afford that. And then I went to the Cube and gave it a spin.”
Newly graduated Kinesiology senior Sarah Kulhanek said she appreciated both the lighter and serious parts of Bloomberg’s speech.
“I just want to know who he consulted before writing about Rick’s and Pizza House because I thought that was a good move on his part,” Kulhanek said.
“I thought it was good to bring up a little bit of controversy,” she added about his remarks on freedom of speech. “This is a university. You have to be able to learn and grow as a person.”