Correction appended: This article incorrectly stated that commencement exercises have been held at Michigan Stadium since the 1950s.
Fears of bluebook failure are enough to make most freshmen sidestep the iconic center of the Diag. After plans were made to hold Saturday’s graduation ceremony in the heart of campus, University officials took a similar precaution.
None of the 30,000 folding chairs that filled the Diag for this year’s graduation sat atop the legendary brass ‘M.’
The operation to prepare the Diag began long before Saturday’s commencement and cost the University $1.8 million, according to University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham. The ceremony normally costs $300,000 to $400,000 when held in its usual venue, Michigan Stadium, she said.
This year’s Central Campus commencement marked a first in the University’s history. For two weeks prior to the event, 50 full-time workers laid plastic tiles, trimmed back trees and set up video screens and sound systems to transform the center of campus into an outdoor auditorium.
Despite workers’ efforts to provide every guest with the best view possible, some guests still arrived early in hopes of securing front row seats for the 10 a.m. ceremony.
“We were here at 8 a.m., and it was already mostly filled by the time we got here,” said Ruth Dennis, who came to watch her niece, LSA graduate Carlie Dennis, receive her diploma. “But we got lucky. We just kind of stumbled upon these seats.”
During her address to graduates and guests on the Diag, University President Mary Sue Coleman remarked on the historical significance of this year’s venue.
“Like the trees that surround us, your academic roots are here,” Coleman said.
Commencement speaker Bob Woodruff, a University Law School alum, used examples from his own life to encourage members of the graduating class not to limit themselves.
“Don’t fear change – embrace it,” Woodruff said. “Give yourself the freedom to switch careers, go back to school or choose your passion when it comes to designing your life.”
The class of 1987 law graduate told the audience that a few years after he graduated, he left a six-figure salary as a lawyer to pursue a career in journalism that paid him just $12,000.
The Michigan native was eventually named co-anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight” in January of 2006. Just a month later, he suffered a shattered skull when a roadside bomb struck him as he covered the war in Iraq.
The story of Woodruff’s injury and eventual recovery from a 36-day coma added emphasis when he told the graduates about the strength of the individual.
“Never underestimate the power of the human spirit,” Woodruff said. “People can fight back against great odds and triumph.”
LSA graduate Michael Kinnaman said he was impressed Woodruff could accomplish so much after being so close to death.
“He had a really inspirational story and it was just nice to see him up there after his recovery,” Kinnaman said, describing the entire event as “tremendous.”
“I think it definitely turned out better than The Big House,” he said. “The University dropped the ball in the beginning, but they really stepped it up in the end.”
Most students who donned caps and gowns for Saturday’s event said they had looked forward to graduating on the grass at The Big House. Michigan Stadium has played host to commencement exercises in the past, but University administrators had to find another place for graduates to turn their tassels this year because the stadium renovations that began last fall made the venue unavailable.
Administrators originally announced that commencement would be held at Eastern Michigan University’s Rynearson Stadium, but the plan was scrapped after the University was flooded with student and alumni complaints. Graduates were eventually given a choice between a few on-campus locations, and the Diag emerged as the overwhelming favorite.
Though Saturday’s cool temperatures left some guests wrapped in blankets and others seeking more cushy seats in Hill Auditorium, where the event was displayed on a television screen, nearly everyone in attendance seemed to be satisfied with the setup.
In the final minutes before commencement, many parents crowded to the front of the Diag, snapping photos of their children, while graduates stood on chairs, hoping to get a few seconds of fame on the video screens before speeches began.
Others like LSA graduate Tia’ Trammell took the opportunity to reflect on their time at the University.
“At first I was a little disappointed, but now I really like it,” Trammell said of the commencement location.
“It reminds me of walking to class everyday and how much it took for me to get here,” she said.