As over 1,000 students sign petition protesting 2017 commencement plans, University affirms ceremony will have multiple speakers

Wednesday, November 16, 2016 - 2:32pm

In a Wednesday press release, the University of Michigan stressed that the 2017 commencement ceremony — the bicentennial ceremony — will include multiple in-person speakers.

The release came after a petition circulated among seniors this week alleging that there were tentative plans to compile a video of past speakers instead of one or both of the traditional speakers — typically a student and a keynote speaker.

Engineering senior Clare Hyde said she created the survey Sunday after confirming that this was the committee’s plan for commencement with several individual sources, including student advisers to the committee.

Hyde received 1,152 responses from seniors by midnight Monday, of which 97 percent expressed a negative opinion about replacing speakers with videos.

She said she decided to circulate the survey as part of a larger complaint to the bicentennial committee and the subcommittee dedicated to planning the commencement ceremonies because she anticipated a more traditional celebration to commemorate graduation from the University.

“You could do it in addition, but it shouldn’t change the program because people have been looking forward to potentially being a student speaker,” Hyde said. “They’ve been coming with all these different ideas to talk about and be inspiring to their fellow classmates and future colleagues. And they want to have some big-name, inspiring person coming and talking with them to inspire them for their future as well. This is supposed to be a celebration and you’re supposed to be excited about it, but I feel like a video doesn’t do that justice.”

In the press release, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the aim of the University is to make the event memorable for attendees.

One voice is not enough to fully celebrate this historic commencement,he said. We want to make this a truly memorable experience for the students of our bicentennial class and their families."

According to the release, the ceremony will include a music performance by a nationally recognized individual or group, as well as speeches from and recognition of alumni and a video created by current students. Graduating students will also sit on the field for the event, a break from tradition.

Details of the ceremony are slated to be announced in early 2017.

LSA senior Francesca Sands who was sent the survey this week, said in an interview before the University release she was surprised and angry at the thought of replacing either speaker with a video.

Sands said she anticipated commencement speakers who would address current events, especially in light of the recent win of President-elect Donald Trump. She said she felt a video could not sufficiently address the particular salient issues facing soon-to-be graduates currently on campus.

“Especially with the climate after the election, with everything socially and politically, we’re going to be graduating terrified, pretty much, and I think that needs to be addressed,” she said. “I feel like a video highlighting parts of other speeches from past years isn’t addressed to us or the time we’re going to be entering the world in. I was disappointed.”

She also voiced her concern over the perceived lack of transparency and student input in the planning process.

“I’m worried that people will be caught off guard by this decision in March, whenever they’re supposed to release the speaker,” Sands said. “And then there’s nothing they can do about it.”

Hyde closed the survey Monday night after receiving additional information from the Bicentennial Advisory Committee that it would not entirely replace both speakers with videos. However, she said the committee had not communicated this to the student advisers she knew on the committee at the time she released the survey.

She said, in general, she felt the committee could have communicated more with students from the start to confirm this was an acceptable change to the traditions of the ceremony.

“Even if they were planning on changing it, the students should have been consulted,” Hyde said. “When it’s changing something that’s so valued and such a tradition in the University of Michigan, we rely on our tradition and our legacy. That’s what we hold in our high morals, honestly, and when you don’t consult the people who it’s going to affect the most, I think that’s really poor.”

Francis Blouin, chair of the Bicentennial Advisory Committee and a history and information professor, said he was not involved in the planning process but that the intention is to make bicentennial commencement a unique event.

“I don’t have all the details, but I know it was an effort to make the bicentennial commencement a little bit different so that it would be memorable,” he said.

However, Hyde said she felt the former and current plan for the ceremony focus too much on the University and not enough on the students currently graduating.

“It should celebrate our class, not just the University of Michigan’s accomplishments,” she said.