Michael Sugerman and Victoria Noble: So much for our send-off

Wednesday, March 29, 2017 - 10:51am

There has been a great deal of justifiable outcry from graduating students with regard to the University of Michigan’s decision to replace a traditional commencement address with a multimedia presentation that stitches together past speeches. 

This deviation from the status quo on the University’s 200th birthday feels counterintuitive. Why break from tradition for a celebration that is steeped in it? Though it may not be the University’s intention, replacing the big-name speaker with a video compilation makes a major milestone (for the class of 2017 and the University alike) seem like an afterthought.

There are myriad reasons members of the graduating class are disappointed and angry, but the crux is that the University’s administration largely ignored our voices en route to designing the commencement ceremony. The finalized lineup comes after more than 1,000 students signed a petition protesting the elimination of a traditional commencement speaker, and after the Bicentennial Office received survey results revealing that 97 percent of respondents expressed negative opinions about replacing the commencement address with a video.

University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen wrote in an email, “The university has worked for the last year to gather student input on the bicentennial commencement and involve students in planning this special occasion.” But multiple student leaders raised concerns to members of the University administration to no avail.

Engineering senior Clare Hyde, who served as a representative on the Bicentennial Commencement Student Advisory Committee, said in a statement to The Tab that when she brought up the survey results showing student resistance to the multimedia presentation, a staff member responded, “We’re going to try to focus on the graduating students, but that’s going to be hard.”

Similarly, LSA senior Aaron Cahen, who led Central Student Government’s liaison efforts with the Bicentennial Office, said in an interview that even though he and several others told the administration the video presentation wasn’t a good idea, “It doesn’t appear that pretty much any of it (our suggestions) was incorporated in any way, shape or form.” 

Systems were put in place for student involvement here, so where was the disconnect? Why was it that students were sought out and asked for their input, only to produce results that don’t reflect that input? Clearly, the University administration and the graduating class had different ideas about the role bicentennial celebrations should play in commencement.

Music, Theatre & Dance Prof. Malcolm Tulip, who is responsible for creating the now-infamous video presentation, previously said in a press release the video will allow graduates and their families to “gain a sense of their place in the university and nation’s history.”

Understanding the greater context of one’s experiences is important — who are we to face and attempt to tackle the problems of this world without understanding how they’ve come to exist in the first place? In this sense, a compilation video of past speeches actually has the potential to be great by weaving a unique narrative from the combined voices of others.

To be fair, the forthcoming “multimedia presentation” is something we’d be excited to see on YouTube or Facebook. But we’re just not interested in watching a historical hype video on the jumbotron at graduation in lieu of a live address. Our frustration is that the University seems to have abandoned making commencement a reflective, standalone experience for graduates in favor of creating a reusable, promotional sizzle reel.

The administration had an opportunity to integrate bicentennial celebrations into our commencement in a way that highlighted the best aspects of both. The concern now is that the bicentennial will overshadow our commencement and, consequently, devalue the accomplishment of graduating. So much for a positive send-off.

In her statement to The Tab, Hyde speculated that getting rid of the traditional keynote speaker was a move by the University to control the message given at commencement, and claimed that the decision is “merely an attempt to be non-controversial after some previous speeches.”

This may refer to Michael Bloomberg’s address at last year’s commencement, which generated national headlines for criticizing university administrations that “bow to pressure and shield students from (controversial) ideas through ‘safe spaces, ‘code words’ and ‘trigger warnings.’ ”

University President Mark Schlissel has previously espoused the importance of engaging with “the conflict of discordant ideas and opinions.” If Hyde’s allegations are true, few decisions could be more contrary to this practice than refusing student requests for a graduation speaker in an effort to prevent potential controversy on the University’s 200th birthday.

Some students have also suggested that the University may have had difficulty finding a big-name speaker and therefore decided not to have one at all. The irony is that the administration had ample opportunity to hire an amazing keynote speaker –– and we know this because some incredible people will be in attendance at commencement anyway.

The Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning composers of “La La Land” will perform, and no fewer than 10 incredible alumni will also be at the event to receive accolades. We’d prefer a keynote speech from any one of these extremely accomplished graduates to not having one at all –– even if these folks aren’t as famous as former President Barack Obama or ex-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo.

However, without a keynote speaker or an alternate way to tailor the event to the graduating class, the alumni awards seem jarringly out of place. The heavy focus on alumni at commencement has led some in the graduating class to believe, even if it’s not true, that the event is primarily focused on building alumni relations and bolstering fundraising efforts.

It feels like the University has appropriated our commencement ceremony to organize a fundraising ploy that honors its most successful previous graduates. That’s hard to swallow when some current graduates-to-be have just finished paying tuition and others haven’t begun paying off student loans. We’re proud of our alumni, and believe these inspiring people more than deserve the awards they’re receiving. But, as many students have expressed, commencement isn’t the time or place.

Ultimately, CSG President David Schafer, an LSA senior, said in an interview that he’s learned “things don’t end well” when students aren’t consulted on the issues that directly affect them. “Students have their finger on the pulse in ways that no other constituent or stakeholder at this University has,” he said. We overwhelmingly agree.

Commencement is case in point. Even if the ceremony still has the power to be meaningful and memorable (which it does), it was not handled in a way that reflects our constituency’s feedback. The reality, then, is that the University is leaving a bad taste in the mouths of the people it was supposed to celebrate — and that’s an unfortunate way to culminate our experiences here.

Most University graduates remember who delivered their commencement address, even if they don’t remember the minutiae of the speech itself. At this school, we’ve come to understand commencement as a defining moment of our education, something we all work toward and a memory meant to last a lifetime. The University prides itself on grooming the Leaders and the Best; this decision fails to meet that standard. It’s not too late to fix it.

Michael Sugerman can be reached at mrsugs@umich.edu. Victoria Noble can be reached at vjnoble@umich.edu.

Correction: The version of this column published on March 30 incorrectly implied the Bicentennial Office unilaterally decided not to have a speaker at commencement; this decision was made by numerous bodies within the University administration. The article has also been updated to reflect that it is uncertain what the composers of "La La Land" will perform at commencement.