As the sun broke through the clouds and the band began to play the processional for spring commencement at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, members of the class of 2007 scrambled to take their seats in anticipation of the ceremony’s keynote speaker, former President Bill Clinton.
Having Clinton speak at this year’s commencement was exciting for many graduates – past speakers have been criticized for their lack of name recognition.
Clinton delivered the commencement address to a crowd of about 59,000 alumni, parents and friends, as well as 6,500 members of the class of 2007.
About 19,000 more non-graduates attended this year’s ceremony than in previous years.
Although the audience was much larger than in previous years, DPS Spokeswoman Diane Brown said the level of security was the same as during football games, besides the presence of Secret Service agents who took care of Clinton’s personal security.
One aspect of security that differed from home football games was that the no-fly zone around the stadium enforced on game days was declared not applicable by the Federal Aviation Administration because the ceremony wasn’t a sporting event, Brown said.
For much of the ceremony, a small private plane flew around the stadium pulling a banner that read “Choose life, not Hillary & abortion.”
The ceremony started fifteen minutes late because bad weather in New York delayed Clinton’s flight that morning.
After receiving an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from University President Mary Sue Coleman, humanitarian and environmental efforts, Clinton spoke to graduates for 23 minutes and emphasized the importance of being engaged citizens.
“You are living in one of the most exciting times in human history,” he said. “It is exploding with opportunity. It is bursting with knowledge.”
But he referred to the world as an “unequal, unstable and unsustainable” place and challenged graduating students to take a role in changing it.
Clinton reminded students to take on more in their adult lives than voting and paying taxes by mentioning the roles they could play in the battles against HIV/AIDS and global warming.
“None of those problems is beyond the reach of our common endeavor,” he said. “All we have to do is remember that it is our common endeavor.”
Despite the gravity of the subjects he spoke about, Clinton’s speech was light and at times humorous.
After thanking President Coleman for his honorary degree, Clinton made a plug for his wife U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who is a 2008 presidential candidate.
“I am delighted to be given this degree by the University of Michigan’s first female president. Has a great ring, don’t you think?” he said.
After Clinton spoke, President Coleman presented three other honorary degrees. Architect J. Max Bond, Jr. received a Doctor of Fine Arts degree, sociologist Philip E. Converse received a Doctor of Science degree and Engineer Irma M. Wyman received a Doctor of Engineering degree for achievement in their respective fields.
LSA graduate Anoop Agarwal said Clinton’s speech lived up to his expectations of Clinton as a renowned speaker.
“I definitely enjoyed the speech,” he said. “It was somewhat political but I don’t object to that because I feel like it would be difficult to deliver a commencement speech that wasn’t in any way (political).”
Gary Lappin, father of LSA graduate Rachel Lappin, said he thought Clinton was a good choice for a speaker, but that the content of the speech disappointed him.
“At least he was better than George Bush,” Lappin said. “But it did seem like there wasn’t a lot of passion behind what he was saying. Maybe it was the same old spiel, maybe he was tired, but he seemed almost bored with what he was saying.”
In their addresses, President Coleman, Provost Teresa Sullivan and LSA Dean Terrance McDonald made remarks similar to Clinton’s about students’ responsibility to help shape a world where people and communities are increasingly interconnected.
President Coleman encouraged students to be dedicated citizens in their communities and beyond.
“Regardless of what your business card says, you are first and foremost a citizen of the world,” she said. “Where you will make a real difference is in how you treat and support others, because those are the actions that will truly change a life.”
LSA graduate Abdulrahman Mohamed El Sayed, who was chosen by a committee of students, faculty and staff to address the class of 2007, also used the opportunity to mention the global challenges graduates will face.
“We need to have the audacity to believe we can change the world,” he said.
Clinton is speaking at more commencement ceremonies this year than he has in the past several years.
Later this spring, Clinton will address graduates at Rochester Technology Institute, Knox College, Middlebury College and Harvard University. He will also appear at the University of New Hampshire’s ceremony with former President George Bush.