Bicentennial Commencement looks back on University's 200 years, Class of 2017's future

 

Saturday, April 29, 2017 - 12:47pm

This year’s University of Michigan commencement ceremony was initially met with some dissatisfaction from the Class of 2017 as the celebrations included a series of musical performances, a multimedia presentation and alumni awards to pay special tribute to the University’s bicentennial, rather than a featured speaker.

In the months leading up to Saturday’s ceremony, University graduates, Central Student Government leaders and other community members voiced concern with the University’s plan not to include a speaker, saying the celebration’s docket was more to honor the University and its bicentennial than the graduates. In previous years, the University has hosted former President Barack Obama and most recently, Bloomberg L.P. founder Michael Bloomberg.

Students went so far as to take action in calling on the administration; CSG and LSA Student Government each released statements regarding commencement plans, asking for reconsideration of the student body’s input. However, these demands were unmet.

Despite these issues preceding Saturday’s ceremony and the cold weather, the day held a number of special activities for the Class of 2017.

The opening bicentennial fanfare — written by Music, Theatre & Dance Prof. Roshanne Etezady — was followed by Vice Admiral Walter E. Carter Jr., superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, who led a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps commissioning ceremony, recognizing 39 cadets joining the United States Armed Forces.

This was followed by a speech from now-University alum Hannah Gugel, who introduced the video as well as discussed her own experiences at the University. Grugel majored in chemical engineering though also studied Native American literature, which she said helped her gain an increased appreciation for her Quechan heritage.

“Native Americans played a foundational role in the University's history,” Grugel said. “The land was sold and proceeds helped support the young University of Michigan. I and others are thankful that the tribal lands were used to support education.”

As part of the University’s Stumbling Blocks exhibit’s “Native Americans: Michigan’s Foundation” installation the University enlarged the plaque on the Diag stating the land the University is built upon was a gift of land from three Native American tribes to the University in 1817.

The controversial commencement video consisted of two parts — one honoring the history of the University titled “As We Go Forward…” created by Malcolm Tulip, assistant professor of theatre and drama at the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, and a second focusing on the future titled “A Send-off” created by Filmic, a student run creative agency. The first was focusing on the bicentennial celebrations — students had criticized the commencement ceremony of being too focused on the University’s history rather than the Class of 2017 — and the second of student’s contributions.

The interim commencement speech first featured a multimedia project displaying current University faculty reading various words from former speeches made at the University’s graduation ceremonies over the past 200 years.

Within the display were words from speeches of historical significance to the University, including those from former University presidents and notable United States politicians, activists and performers.

The video cited significant words from Lyndon B. Johnson’s commencement address to the University in 1964: “For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society,” Johnson said in the video. “The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.”

Another notable speech which received cheers from the graduates and faculty were those of Gerald R. Ford, highlighting the significance of the University as one of his homes, following that of his place in the House of Representatives.

“The other place where I will always feel I belong is this beautiful and hospitable campus,” Ford said in the presentation. “Here I spent four memorable years.”

Words from the speech of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama also received praise from the audience.

Now-University alum Connor Rubin expressed much disappointment with the first video highlighting various former speakers, stating in an interview the video was an indication the University put minimal effort into the ceremony.

"The university has brought in speakers as impressive as Janet Yellen and Jesse Jackson all year," Rubin wrote. "We couldn't get anyone? It's just too bad my last memory of the best four years of my life will be one of abject anger and disappointment at the lack of commencement speaker and horrible excuse of a replacement."

However, Rubin said he thought the second send-off video was well done.

"The second video, the one made by students, was powerful and moving," Rubin wrote. "I'm glad I got to see it. And I wish they had made the first one because then it may have been worthy of either a celebration of 200 years or our commencement."

Now-graduate Eitan Katz said while he enjoyed the ceremony, he also agreed and felt it was more geared toward the University and called for more appreciation of the students, rather than alumni.

"I think the entire presentation including the ceremony was beautifully done," Katz wrote. "The Bicentennial Alumni Awards were very impressive, and I appreciated the message of inspiration to all the students for how we can also make a difference in the world to come. However, I thought that any of those (10) incredible alumni could have provided the Class of 2017 with a wonderful speech."

Later, instead of presenting honorary degrees as is tradition at the ceremony, ten Bicentennial Alumni Awards were given out for those who impacted their fields and were successful in advancing the ideals of the University.  The awards were based on nominations from current students as well as alumni. Recipients include renowned artists, authors, activists and creators.  

Now-University alum Ahmad Hider introduced Schlissel while noting his appreciation for the sacrifices his parents made for his education.

“I believe that education is the most powerful tool a person can have,” Hider said. “It opens the opportunities to succeed and it stays with you for life.”

Schlissel first focused on the sentiment behind the bicentennial presentation.

“The moments we just relived are some of the most incredible in the history of the University of Michigan.”

He also especially discussed the importance of discovery, alternative facts and looking toward the future in terms of advancing the University’s goals.

“In our hearts and in our mission, we are a research university,” Schlissel said. “At the University of Michigan, the commitment to discovery is sacred … It defines our university and it makes a U of M education different.”

Schlissel outlined a three step process to discovery: allowing room for failure, reevaluating and lastly, aiding in society’s advance to its full potential.

“When you become the first person to create an original thought or make a discovery, make the most out of it,” Schlissel said. “Convince others that scientific understanding based on facts and logic matters.”

Toward the end of Schlissel’s remarks, he highlighted the significance of a University of Michigan education.

“Nothing can hide from a Wolverine forever,” Schlissel said. “Graduates, Michigan’s third century is now yours: go discover, go achieve, go serve and go blue.”

Correction: Previous version of this article misattributed the student organization who created the commencement video.