President Barack Obama will be the keynote speaker at this year’s spring commencement, University President Mary Sue Coleman said in an announcement yesterday evening.
In their own words
“President Obama has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of many students with his inspiring words of hope and change,” Coleman said in a statement. “We are honored to welcome a leader of his distinction and look forward to his message.
“We could not be happier for the graduates who will celebrate their academic achievements with the president of the United States.”
Obama will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during the ceremony.
This spring’s commencement, which will award degrees to approximately 3,500 undergraduates, will be held on May 1 at 10 a.m. in Michigan Stadium. Officials expect more than 40,000 family members and friends of students to be in attendance for the ceremony.
Obama’s first year in the country’s highest office has been plagued by the ongoing financial crisis that has crippled many industries throughout the country — like the financial sector and the housing market.
However, the Great Recession has fallen especially hard on Michigan’s auto industry, causing the state’s unemployment rate — which is now the highest in the country — to skyrocket. And while unemployment nationally has begun to decrease recently, the fiscal picture for the state continues to be grim as legislators in Lansing face a $1.5 billion budget deficit in the next fiscal year.
Amid that economic uncertainty, Communications and Political Science Prof. Michael Traugott and Political Science Prof. Kenneth Kollman said they wouldn’t be surprised if Obama uses his commencement address at the University to launch a new initiative or make a strong policy statement.
Kollman stressed the unique example Michigan represents as a state mired in the troubles of its old manufacturing economy but also one where a transition to a new economy could yield limitless possibilities.
Obama will be the fourth United States president to deliver the commencement address in Ann Arbor.
In 2007, former President Bill Clinton gave the address and President George H.W. Bush spoke at commencement in May 1991. Lyndon B. Johnson was the first sitting president to address the University’s graduating class when he spoke in 1964.
Presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald R. Ford also gave notable speeches in Ann Arbor, though they did not speak at commencement ceremonies while they were president. Ford, however, did give a commencement address at the University while he was vice president.
Kennedy announced the formation of the Peace Corps from the steps of the Michigan Union on Oct. 14, 1960, and Ford launched his presidential campaign at a packed Crisler Arena on Sept. 15, 1976.
Obama, the 44th president of the United States and the nation’s first black president, is a graduate of Columbia University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and is also an alum of Harvard Law School, where he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.
Last year, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
In an interview last night following the announcement, University Regent Denise Ilitch (D–Bingham Farms) said she was incredibly excited to hear that Obama had accepted the invitation to speak at commencement.
“I think it is an amazing opportunity for the University and very, very exciting that he will be speaking at the Big House for all of us,” Ilitch said.
“I think it just goes to show how special the University is, that we’ve had many presidents visit to give commencement addresses,” Ilitch said. “I think this just continues the wonderful reputation and stature and high regard that our university has held by presidents and what better president than President Obama.”
Ilitch said she had been aware of the University’s request for some time, noting that she even brought it up when she met with White House officials last month about her potential bid to become Michigan’s next governor.
“It was kind of interesting because I was at the White House a couple weeks ago to meet with some of the president’s aides and I brought it up,” Ilitch said. “I knew that we had a request in for the president to come and speak at the University and many people around the University were working on obtaining the president’s attendance. When I had asked them, they said, ‘yes, we are aware of the request and we’ve taken it under advisement.’”
The suspense over whether Obama would accept the invitation made today’s announcement even more special, Ilitch said.
“And so I was especially excited to hear when it went from ‘under advisement’ to a big yes,” she said. “It was very heartening to hear they had said yes.”
Ilitch said she felt the visit would not only be significant for the students graduating and those in attendance, but also for the state of Michigan as a whole.
“I think it’s terrific that he’s coming to Michigan, to our state,” Ilitch said. “I think the state was so supportive of him during the election and so I’m just especially pleased that he’s visiting our state as well as our university.”
In addition to delivering the commencement address at the University, The Associated Press is also reporting that Obama will speak at Hampton University in Virginia and one of the nation’s military academies.
Hampton University President William R. Harvey told the AP that Obama will speak to Hampton graduates on May 9.
The Obama administration official who told the AP that Obama would speak at a military academy spoke on the condition of anonymity and did not say which academy Obama would speak at. Obama spoke at the U.S. Naval Academy last year.
In addition to speaking at the Naval Academy in 2009, Obama delivered the commencement address at Arizona State University and Notre Dame University last year. Obama’s invitation to speak at ASU’s graduation ceremony drew criticism from some when the university refused to award him an honorary degree.
His address to Notre Dame also turned controversial when a former Vatican ambassador who was slated to receive an honorary degree refused to accept the degree alongside Obama because of Obama’s pro-choice stance on the issue of abortion.
— Managing News Editor Jillian Berman contributed to this report.