Multiple keynote speakers called on graduates to use their diplomas to promote positive change at the 2014 Winter Commencement on Sunday. But after the ceremony, guests exited the Crisler Center to find about 60 students taking that drive to heart.
Outside Crisler, protesters gathered for a “die-in” to call for an end to police brutality and racial profiling. The event follows several similar events held on campus in recent weeks to protest grand jury decisions not to indict police officers responsible for the deaths of two unarmed Black men in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, New York.
Among several speeches and musical performances during the ceremony, University President Mark Schlissel, University Provost Martha Pollack and NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr., the commencement speaker, pushed graduates to challenge the status quo as they begin their lives outside of the University.
In opening his speech, Bolden echoed the remarks of the 2013 Commencement Speaker Michele Norris, a renowned journalist, who said love should prevail in light of conflict and tragedy across the nation.
After protests and calls for reform erupted across the country over the last few months, Bolden called on University’s graduates to play a part in fostering change.
“Much as it was for the class of (2013), you arrived at this day of celebration with our nation still struggling to provide peace and justice for all its citizens,” he said. “You are well prepared and ready to make a difference.”
Under his leadership as NASA’s first Black administrator, NASA landed a rover on Mars and launched a spacecraft to Jupiter, among other feats, after President Barack Obama nominated Bolden to head NASA in 2009.
“It’s time for you to go out and challenge the status quo. It’s the mission of the University of Michigan to, and I quote, ‘Educate leaders and citizens to challenge the present and enrich the future.’”
During his first commencement ceremony, Schlissel said he had been looking forward to this day since he was selected as the University’s 14th president in January. In his address, Schlissel asked graduates to chart their own “Michigan stories.”
“I ask, because the stories that intrigue me most, those that drive me and inspire me, are the stories yet to be written,” he said. “You have the tools to help individuals and entire populations. You can create new knowledge and inspire communities. You have the optimism and entrepreneurial spirit to take on the biggest challenges – and you have your Michigan family to cheer you on and support you every step of the way.”
University Provost Martha Pollack opened the ceremony, thanking students for their activism on campus and passion for social justice. One of her main wishes for graduates, she noted, was for them to take risks and challenge existing social norms.
“I don’t think you (will) shy away from, but instead will seek out challenges throughout your life,” Pollack said.
When listing possibilities for students to promote change after graduation, Pollack lauded student activism and the students’ desire for an equitable, diverse campus.
“Perhaps, as so many of you have done during your time at Michigan, you will become involved in social activism, challenging all of us to become a better, more equitable and inclusive society.”
After Schlissel conferred degrees, hundreds of undergraduate, graduate and doctorate students, family and friends exiting Crisler were greeted by dozens of protesters laying on the plaza.
Though die-in protests held across the country over the past few weeks typically last 4.5 minutes to represent the 4.5 hours Ferguson resident Michael Brown spent on the ground after he was shot and killed by a police officer, protesters remained in position until the hundreds of commencement guests funneled out of Crisler.
As commencement attendees exited Crisler, they walked around — or through — the group of protestors on the ground. Some encouraged them, while others voiced distaste in their choice of timing the protest after the graduation ceremony.
LSA senior Canon Thomas, one of the event’s organizers, said demonstrating after the commencement ceremony provided an opportunity to reach a wider audience beyond University students. He also emphasized the ties between the occasion of receiving a degree and taking steps to enact positive change.
“Once you get your degree, as I understand from the mission statement, you’re supposed to go out in the world and make change,” he said. “You’re supposed to take your degree and make the world a better place. So yes you have your degree, you have it in hand, now what? Come join us and tell everyone with your degree that Black lives matter. We didn’t do it before or during, we did it after. As you walk to your car, I want you to remember Black lives matter. If it’s not appropriate, when is the time? When is the right time for justice?”
Law Prof. Martha Jones, who stood beside the students for several minutes during the protest and teared up as she spoke about the demonstration, said she couldn’t imagine a better moment to communicate to the graduates’ family, friends and supporters what students have been working on and thinking about during the past semester.
“It makes me optimistic because I think that when we charge students with graduation and commencement and (think about) who they’ll be… we want them to be citizens of the world and to not only have ideas, but to act on their ideas and this to me seems to be absolutely the embodiment of that.”
Jones also said this type of broad discussion pairs well with the conversations about diversity and inclusion currently underway at the University.
“We still have a serious conversation in house about students, and numbers and percentages that shouldn’t be lost even as we’re now very much part of this national conversation that is focused on police violence — that the experience of our students at Michigan is still very much tied to our numbers. So I hope that we’ll continue with that commitment and still working on that very challenging problem while we’re also part of this bigger discussion. They’re really companion pieces,” she said.
LSA junior Rachel Webb, another organizer for the demonstration, worked with University Police to ensure the protest was peaceful and did not obstruct the ceremony. While Webb recognized the need to end police brutality, she noted that protesters must not assume all officers profile citizens based on race.
“We were proud of the police officers who stood in solidarity with us,” Webb said, noting that her father is a police officer. “They were very adamant about us exercising those rights.”
In response to those criticizing the protest for its placement after the ceremony, Webb said the demonstration did not aim to take attention away from the graduates, but rather serve as a forum to both educate attendees and provide a voice for concerns with which many University students are grappling.
“We didn’t want to take away from graduation at all, but there’s a lot of Black grads in that crowd that are feeling these things, and it doesn’t just stop because things are happy.”