With nationally prominent figures such as
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Supreme Court
Justice Clarence Thomas speaking at other Michigan colleges, the
University’s own choice for spring commencement speaker, the
seemingly unknown founder of Automobile Magazine, David Davis, at
first appeared a bit disappointing. Students and faculty alike
criticized the lackluster name and held few expectations about his
coming remarks. Before Davis actually uttered a word, University
cynics voiced and printed their unfavorable assumptions, making
clear their predetermined disdain.

Mira Levitan

On Saturday, May 1, close to 4,000 students donning caps, gowns
and graduation-day smiles, flocked to Michigan Stadium to
participate in spring commencement. Despite initially preordained
misgivings, students were pleasantly surprised at the power of
Davis’ comments, which expressed a message of perseverance
and determined optimism. His entertaining and often
self-deprecating stories spoke to the experience of life,
encouraging listeners to not only overcome, but to revel in the
many tribulations encountered along the way. At the outset, Davis
himself addressed the doubts many people had about his selection,
singling out a specific graduating senior who preemptively attacked
Davis in a letter to the editor published in The Michigan Daily. In
the end, Davis’ charm was rewarded with three standing
ovations, proving that a speaker’s ability and influence is
not constrained by his credentials.

Amidst academic and pompous posturing, it is sometimes easy to
get swept away with the pretense of a resumé, but Davis
reminded students to look past superficial qualifications and to
instead focus on content of character. Davis offered a fitting
message to graduating students: one that did not highlighted
success, but failure. By discussing his impecunious upbringing and
numerous academic hardships, Davis delivered an inspiring
rags-to-riches story that a silver-spooned politico could not have
done. The Ann Arbor resident’s speech was not one that sought
to lecture from above, but one that offered a tangible and
accessible message that was uplifting from the perspective of an
equal.

The content of Davis’ message and the positive response
from students clearly cast aside any of the doubts that many people
had about his selection. His speech, which received far more
positive response than Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s one
year ago, demonstrates that just as one must not judge a book by
its cover, one must not judge a speaker by his fame. Furthermore,
whereas Granholm sparked controversy by warning students not to
throw their lives away, Davis was able to deliver a message about
never losing hope. In hindsight, this spring commencement made it
clear that it is the message and content of the speech, not the
person who delivers it, that matters.

Overall, Davis appears vindicated. The early criticisms, based
solely on his relative anonymity, seem to be baseless. While the
University was not able to host a nationally known figure, it was
able to find a speaker who was able to connect with students. When
looking at the greater picture, it seems as if this duty —
finding a speaker to engage and inspire the audience —is the
greatest responsibility in the search for a spring commencement
speaker. When looking to the future, the University should not
focus on demonstrating national prominence through recruiting a
renowned figure, but instead devote its effort to presenting
students with a thoughtful and provocative final message.

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