Winter commencement speakers urge service, activism
Speakers at the University of Michigan’s 2016 winter commencement urged graduates to rise to service in a time of uncertainty, following a semester rife with controversy on campus and across the country.
The ceremony, honoring about 800 graduates, was centered around life transitions — both small and large. On campus and across the country there is an aura of change: Preparations for the University’s bicentennial in 2017 are in full swing, while on the national stage, President-elect Donald Trump is poised to take office in just under five weeks. In what was Provost Martha Pollack’s last commencement speech at the University, she emphasized graduates’ responsibility to the changing world around them. Pollack is slated to assume her new post as president of Cornell University next spring.
“I want to share with you what I’ve learned in my time here at Michigan as well,” she said. “The greatest work you will ever do will be on behalf of others,”
University President Mark Schlissel echoed Pollack's sentiments, hailing “the final graduating class of the second century of the University,” and noting parallels in the transitions in graduates’ lives.
“This is a chance to set the tone for the year ahead,” he said. “It’s time to embrace the transition from student to active participant.”
Schlissel's remarks particularly referred to Trump’s election, which sparked a flurry of activism on campus, especially in the wake of a number of hate crimes targeting students of color immediately following the election. Vigils, protests and rallies — including a walkout consisting of nearly a thousand students — added to organizing efforts already initiated after rounds of bigoted fliers against Black, LGBTQ, Muslim and female students were posted around campus in September and October.
To this, Schlissel stressed the importance of branching out to connect with individuals of other perspectives.
“Differences in party are not more powerful than shared values,” he said. “Be open to people you care about disagreeing with you, and take care to discuss even emotionally charged disagreements with an open mind and mutual respect.”
Commencement speaker Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami, charged the University’s newest alumni with leveraging their experiences in higher education to address mistrust in “the system” after the election.
“Universities must lead the way in restoring trust in institutions,” he said. “Your graduation coincides with an extremely complex moment in human society. We seem to be encouraged not to raise our sights, but to lower them, to look inward, distrust the other. My message to you: Resist that.”
Student speaker William Royster, an LSA senior, wove together his journey to the University and family history to similarly highlight the importance of service. Royster, a member of the Black Student Union, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and the University’s chapter of the NAACP, payed homage to his mentors for setting high standards.
“In just two generations, my family has gone from being illiterate to being educated to having a family member attend an Ivy League institution,” he said. “To whom much is given, much is required. I challenge you to ask yourself: What is required of you now?”