Graduating students were asked to stand up — both literally and metaphorically — Sunday afternoon at the University’s 2015 Winter Commencement.
The theme of Sunday’s ceremony for an estimated 900 graduates in attendance at Crisler Center was largely activism, with multiple speakers exploring what it means to confront injustice and make an impact on the world.
University Provost Martha Pollack, who spoke first during the event, reflected on the idea of optimism. She said she believes maintaining hope, even amid the negativity the world holds, is not naive or unrealistic.
“In December of 2015, the world is broken in many ways and it will fall to you to help repair it,” she said. “But I nonetheless want you to leave here with a sense of hope, and a sense of optimism.”
Quoting author and activist Howard Zinn, Pollack said, “If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.”
University President Mark Schlissel also discussed the perspective graduates should bring to the world they are entering, pointing specifically to values and rights.
“As a nation, we are struggling mightily with the tensions in trying to balance our Constitutional rights and shared values with our sense of safety in our communities, on our campuses, all the way to the level of national security,” Schlissel said. “I chose this topic because it is fundamental to things we hold dear as educated members of society.”
Reflecting on the legacy of the Red Scare in particular, he noted that for many college campuses during that period, including the University, that question proved difficult to answer.
In 1954, three tenured University professors were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee over suspicions of Communist activity. All three refused to answer questions and were suspended from the University. Two of the three were later terminated.
That part of the University’s history has also come up in recent months aside from commencement. During a November faculty governance meeting, faculty asked Schlissel about issuing a formal apology to H. Chandler Davis, one of the terminated professors. At the time, Schlissel expressed hesitation, questioning whether it was fair to condemn decisions made in the past under different environments.
“This was a horrible mistake,” Schlissel said of the terminated professors Sunday. “In 1954, the University ignored Constitutional rights and long-held academic values.”
In closing his remarks, Schlissel urged graduates to focus on upholding values and rights even in the face of fear, pointing both to the Cold War and to more recent events, including terrorist attacks on Paris and Beirut in November.
“Too often, a willingness to compromise our values follows tragedy, whether it’s a mass shooting by terrorists or the plight of millions of refugees around the world,” he said. “Graduates, there is no shortage of opportunity to stand up for freedom and values in the modern world.”
Commencement speaker Martha Minow, Harvard Law School dean and a University alum, implored students to be “upstanders” instead of bystanders — echoing Schlissel’s call to take action against injustice and to refuse to be crippled by fear.
“We fear for our own safety, for our own standing out,” Minow said. “And maybe for this reason, we have amazing abilities not to see suffering.”
She began her commencement address by presenting graduates with a question: “What does it take to stand up against what is wrong?”
Historically, distinguishing between what’s right and wrong has required strong individuals to take a stance on the controversial issues of the past, Minow said, and today is no exception.
“This is a time of great possibility: the information revolution, the biotech revolution, globalization and more, but it is also a time of serious challenges: terrorism, mass migrations of people fleeing violence, environmental disasters, devastating debt in cities, states, nations and households, and enduring practices of race, class, religion, gender and sexual orientation based violations of human rights,” she said.
In facing these issues, Minow said the world needs more “upstanders” who are willing to take action.
“Upstanders stand up against injustice, bigotry, violence and wrongdoing,” Minow said. “Perhaps by naming that role, more people will do it.”
While she noted the many challenges to being an upstander, such as group mentality, she encouraged students to use the knowledge and friendships they have gained during their time at the University to make an impact, not as an act of heroism, but rather through small acts of responsibility.
“Wherever you go, you can join with others to make it more possible for each next act of upstanding,” she said.
After the ceremony, LSA senior Thalia Maya said she felt the various perspectives on taking action from each commencement speaker were inspiring, especially Schlissel’s comments.
“I really liked President Schlissel’s speech,” Maya said. “It was very motivating and I thought it was good that he brought up current issues that are happening and how we can move on to our next step as graduates.”
Speaking during the ceremony, LSA senior Kidada Malloy, the student speaker, told the crowd that for her, graduation represented a culmination of hard work and persistence. After initially enrolling in the University at 18, Malloy dropped out, enrolling at a community college before returning.
She compared the challenges she faced and the empowerment and confidence she gained on the path to her degree to the Cube — a structure that weighs 2,400 pounds, yet can be moved by just one person.
“After a few failed attempts, I realized that using all of my physical strength, determination and focus, I could successfully rotate this giant object,” she said. “And just as difficult as it is to rotate the Cube, it is similarly challenging to obtain a degree from Michigan. Most importantly, what we can learn from the Cube is how to use our time here as students to influence and to improve the world around us.”