Woodson spreads message of help, humanity for spring 2018 commencement

Saturday, April 28, 2018 - 11:50am

“When you look around, I don’t want you to see Black, White, Asian. I don’t want you to wonder if a person is Democrat or Republican, gay or straight. When you look around I just want you to simply see human beings. Nothing more, nothing less.”

This is the sentiment University of Michigan alum Charles Woodson left class of 2018 graduates with Saturday morning at spring commencement. Other speakers emphasized themes of service, community and Michigan fandom.

University Provost Martin Philbert, professor of toxicology in the School of Public Health, was the first to make remarks at Saturday’s ceremony.  

Speaking on the class of 2018, Philbert said, “They have challenged us, their teachers, to examine our own ideas. In the face of new evidence and different perspectives, we thank them for reminding us learning is a lifelong endeavor.”

LSA now-graduate Jad Elharake then spoke about his experiences and challenges as an Arab-Muslim student and a first generation college student, leading him to this moment to “come for everything they said we couldn’t have.”

“We faced challenges, made sacrifices but experienced joy along the way,” Elharake said. “It is critical we remember those who empowered us.”

Elharake introduced LSA Dean Andrew Martin, who spoke on the significance of academic freedom. Freedom of speech — especially in the context of racism and hate speech — has been a linchpin for the campus community this year in light of controversy over a potential appearance by white supremacist Richard Spencer.  

“If we don’t trust our ideas enough to sail them out of harbor once in a while, they remain unformed, untested,” he said. “Rather than wrapping ourselves in a security blanket … we raised a collective voice against those who lack collective decency.”

Martin ended his remarks with the notion that, “in the long run, good ideas triumph over bad; integrity beats dishonesty.”

Public Policy now-graduate Nadine Jawad, outgoing Central Student Government vice president, discussed the importance of service, following the example of the Ford School of Public Policy’s eponym, Gerald Ford.

“When I think of the University of Michigan and the Ford School, I think of the will to overcome challenges and in that will I see a very distinct opportunity,” Jawad noted, discussing the challenges of the year and her college tenure but importance of looking toward change.“There is nothing more important than my service to those around me.”

University President Mark Schlissel mentioned his special connection with this year’s graduates, as he began his tenure at the University of Michigan in 2014 when the 2018 graduates were starting their University careers as freshmen. He noted many of the athletic triumphs at the University in the past four years, gaining cheers from the audience with references to teams’ runs in the Final and Frozen Four championships, among other noteworthy events. Schlissel discussed graduation as a turning point for a “new community of scholars.”  

“Class of 2018, today you graduate into an increasingly global society where the challenges are enormous and there are no simple answers,” Schlissel said.

Schlissel expressed the importance for graduates to live their lives embodying the “Michigan difference.”

“I believe we all change the world in ways large and small, and each of us through our Michigan experience finds a way to make an impact,” he said.

Following Schlissel and other speakers were presentations to four honorary degree recipients, including: Jeanne Craig Sinkford, who received an honorary doctor of science; Penny Stamps, who received an honorary doctor of fine arts; David Walt, who received an honorary doctor of science; and main speaker Woodson, who received an honorary doctor of laws.

Woodson, the 1997 Heisman Trophy winner who led the Wolverines to the 1997 co-national championship, then addressed the graduates. Woodson made lighthearted jokes noting, “You’re all stuck with me … but at least this year you have a speaker.”

This referred to student disappointment surrounding last year’s commencement, at which no specific speaker was named in exchange for a Bicentennial-themed ceremony.

Woodson began by drawing several parallels between him and Desmond Howard, another famed Michigan football player, Heisman Trophy awardee and national championship winner.

“Once you get here, you get to witness the tradition of Michigan,” Woodson said. “…When you leave here, that’s the time when you’re really going to appreciate your time being here.”

Woodson also made a few politically-charged allusions about a hypothetical wall between Michigan and Ohio — his home state — taking on commentary against President Donald Trump.   

"If we built that wall, neither me nor Desmond (Howard) could have come here...so scratch that.”

He later shifted to a message about service. Speaking about his childhood being raised by single mother of three, Woodson said he wasn’t alone, and he couldn’t have gotten where he is without others.

Then, Woodson touched on the recent anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King 50 years ago this month, and the significance of King’s activism and commitment to racial justice.

“Dr. King cared about people, and he gave his time, he gave his energy, and ultimately Dr. King gave his life,” Woodson said. “But those things that were happening to people, it never stopped him from trying to help others. He helped people he knew, he helped people that he didn’t know and that’s because of one major quality that I believe that he had that I hope all of you have as you go through your life. ”

He made a request to the graduating class: to look around and see people as they are.

“I guarantee you, if you can begin to see people that way, just as human beings, you will begin to treat them differently,” Woodson said. “You will begin to understand their points of views … I’m asking you — I’m begging you — do not carry the hate forward.”