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For most of the Spring 2021 graduating class, it has been over a year since entering the Big House for a football game or anything else — other than maybe to receive a vaccine. On Saturday, May 1, however, the University of Michigan gave graduates the opportunity to spend the last moments of their college career watching the virtual commencement ceremony with their peers inside Michigan Stadium at noon.

The University said it required students who opted-in to the in-person commencement viewing to be adequately masked and socially distant, restrictions that were essentially not enforced once students entered the stands Saturday. Graduates also had to have a verified ResponsiBLUE screening and testing result, which, for students who have not tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 90 days, includes receiving a COVID-19 test at a University testing location. 

Students who did not feel comfortable attending the in-person event or who wanted to watch the commencement ceremony with family and friends had the option of attending virtually. The recorded ceremony remains available for viewing.

Despite another pandemic graduation celebrated with new, socially distanced traditions — including a massive mural on E. Washington St. — several graduates and parents were upset by the lack of a more conventional commencement experience.

Following the University’s initial announcement in February indicating Spring Commencement would be virtual, a group of students and parents stood in front of the Michigan Union in early March to protest for what they envisioned could be a safe, in-person event.

Along with the protest, a student-curated petition with over 5,000 signatures urged the University to offer an optional in-person graduation ceremony. The petition claimed that the Big House’s seating capacity of 107,601 people would allow for all interested graduates to participate, even with social distancing protocols.

When U-M first indicated that commencement would be virtual, the state’s limitation was 250 people for outdoor events. By contrast, when the plans for a hybrid graduation were announced over a month later, the state of Michigan’s restrictions held capacity at outdoor events to 1,000 people if all attendees were six feet apart and wearing masks.

University President Mark Schlissel speaks to graduates during the in-person commencement viewing at the Big House Saturday afternoon. Emma Mati/Daily.  Buy this photo.

In light of the controversy surrounding the virtual graduation format, University President Mark Schlissel announced the May 1 opt-in commencement celebration at the Big House at the Board of Regents’ meeting on March 25.

LSA graduate Justin Pollack, who attended the celebration, expressed frustration with the hybrid format but also said he understood the University’s decision to hold graduation virtually. 

“It’s the closest thing that I could get to in-person graduation,” Pollack said. “The situation in Michigan three weeks ago wouldn’t have looked good for an in-person graduation, and if you did change (the graduation format) then I guess there would have been a lot of logistical difficulties. So, I get it. It’s disappointing, but like, I’m glad that we have something.”

As student body president Amanda Kaplan introduced Schlissel to the crowd, he was met with a litany of boos. Despite the jeers, Schlissel congratulated the class of 2021, citing their resilience and optimism throughout an unprecedented year.

“Michigan graduates have always led the way in our world when we needed discovery, artistry, activism, and service,” Schlissel said. “This year the class of 2021, also gave us resilience and innovation. You were relentless through more than a year of difficulties. You finished strong. Just in the last month you brought home a National Championship in women’s gymnastics, you provided free transportation to our vaccine clinics … You will forever be Michigan Wolverines.”

Schlissel also cited climate change and the challenges that it may present to graduates, encouraging them to find a way to help make change as it pertains to environmental activism.

“Climate change caused by human activity — particularly the burning of fossil fuels — is the defining scientific and social challenge of our age,” Schlissel said. “We again face the choice of succumbing to fear and base instincts of self-preservation. Or we can embrace a path informed by research, education and environmental justice.”

Although Schlissel ‘ceremonially conferred’ graduates’ degrees on Saturday during the live stream, students will have to wait for academic auditors from their school or college to officially approve their graduation. The University will mail graduates their diplomas approximately 6 to 8 weeks after the commencement ceremony.

Graduates from the class of 2021 gather in-person to view the virtual commencement ceremonies at the Big House Saturday afternoon. Becca Mahon/Daily.  Buy this photo.

This year’s commencement speaker was Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer and social justice advocate. Stevenson addressed the class of 2021, applauding their bravery and perseverance and then challenging them to use their new academic titles and knowledge to fight injustice wherever they encounter it. 

“My hope resides in you,” Stevenson said. “I know so many of you at this point are deeply committed to finding a path forward. I know that many of you want to use degrees to create opportunities, to do something about equality, do something about problems that have created division and despair. I want to use my minutes to encourage you to do that.”

Stevenson additionally discussed the inequity across different identities in the United States. He referenced his work in the criminal justice system, explaining that racial inequality in America is a deep-rooted problem with a long history of negligence and ignorance. 

“I believe we have to change the narrative about race in this country. I do not think we are free,” Stevenson said. “I think we are burdened by the history of racial inequality that has so contaminated the atmosphere that it’s created kind of a smog.”

Stevenson concluded his address to the class of 2021 by wishing the graduates good luck and encouraging them to use their degrees to make a positive difference in their communities.

“I am with you today because I believe, graduates of the University of Michigan, that if we commit to getting proximate, if we change narratives, if we stay hopeful, if we do uncomfortable things, we can change the world,” Stevenson said. “Our world is in need of change. It’s in need of greater opportunity. Greater equity. Greater justice. … I just want to wish each and every one of you the very, very best. What an honor to be part of your graduating class.”

After Stevenson’s address, deans — or a representative for the dean — from every school and college within the University presented the president with the candidates for degrees from their respective schools with a series of individualized messages pre-recorded at locations across campus.

Several of the deans touched on the irregularities and challenges of virtual and hybrid learning, commending the graduating class on their tenacity and continued commitment to their academic goals.

Representing the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Dean Jonathan Massey said the Taubman class of 2021 has begun to learn how to “build better futures” in their time at the University. Massey particularly praised the graduating class for collaborating with faculty to envision how their education was structured in the past year.  

“(The graduates) stepped up to join faculty and staff in planning for this unprecedented year, co-creating our framework for remote and hybrid learning,” Massey said. “Made at Michigan, they are built for the world.”

Another recurring theme from the deans’ statements was the work students have done to assist their communities in the face of the pandemic. At his last graduation before stepping down as dean, Dean Scott DeRue applauded Business graduates for supporting organizations during a time of acute financial stress, while Dean Thomas Finholt highlighted the MI Safe Start dashboard, which Information faculty and students helped create.

Deans presenting candidates for degrees in medical or health-related fields all across the University also thanked the graduates who served on the front line during the pandemic. Dean Patricia Hurn from the School of Nursing celebrated the nursing students who stepped up to help during a ‘pivotal moment’ for those in the field.

“Our faculty, alumni and students have been on the frontline of COVID care for over a year and now volunteer to lead vaccination efforts across Michigan including (in) underserved communities,” Hurn said.

Echoing Stevenson’s discussion of race and justice, most of the deans also alluded to advances in equity supported by the class of 2021 during their time on campus. Representing the School of Public Health, Dean F. DuBois Bowman expressed pride for his graduates’ demonstrated commitment to health equity.

“You’ve … used your voices and training to advance racial justice and health equity,” Bowman said.

Once all 17 schools presented their candidates for degrees, U-M Music, Theatre & Dance graduates performed “The Victors” in a pre-recorded video, evoking cheers and one final rendition of the fight song for the class of 2021 as students.

Cheers filled the stands as the graduates tossed their caps into the air and officially became U-M alumni. Family members greeted students outside Michigan Stadium, providing a sense of normalcy, and embraced the celebration together. 

Summer Managing News Editor Shannon Stocking can be reached at sstockin@umich.edu and Summer News Editor Roni Kane can be reached at ronikane@umich.edu.