In November, I was one of over 1,100 seniors who signed a petition expressing disappointment with the spring 2017 commencement plans. Replacing a featured speaker with a video of past speeches seemed underwhelming — especially for the bicentennial event. Following the petition, seniors held out hope that a featured speaker would be announced and the issue would subside. After all, what good reason could the University of Michigan have to deny us something so standard? It doesn’t lack notable alumni to call up, nor does it struggle to bring interesting, relevant speakers to campus.
On Monday, I was surprised and upset to read that the University did not invite a featured speaker to our commencement and instead moved forward with a video production. I am proud to be a part of the University’s 200-year history, and many of my memories here have been among the set of traditional Wolverine experiences. However, many more have been the result of my place as a student at this particular time, whether contributing to campus-wide Snapchat stories or marching in November’s post-election walk-outs. A video of current faculty and students reading decades- and centuries-old speeches will not capture these unique experiences and certainly will not honor them.
Rather, the video communicates to graduating seniors that our experiences, talents and futures are not worth addressing and that encouraging words from any commencement speech can just as easily apply to any of us. Collectively, perhaps this is true. Maybe we are not so different from classes before or after us, and maybe all commencement speakers speak in clichés that only momentarily inspire.
However, many graduates are non-traditional or first-generation students, many have accrued thousands of dollars in debt and we have all encountered hardships over the past four years to make it to April 29, 2017, when it would be “worth it.” Our individual paths to graduation have not been as uniform as a video of recycled speeches would suggest, and we deserve even momentary inspiration from someone who understands us in the here and now.
What is most angering is that this is just another instance of a much more troublesome habit of University administrators: consistently ignoring or inadequately responding to student concerns and demands. For many of those cases, I can acknowledge — though I disagree with — the University’s stated perspective and hesitance to respond. There are more serious problems than dissatisfaction with a commencement speaker, or lack thereof, that require reflective, nuanced and long-term responses from the University.
Thus, the University’s refusal to address the class of 2017’s concerns about commencement renders me all the more shocked. Confronted with relatively uniform opposition to a non-controversial University-only event, the University decided (again) to disregard student sentiment. A simple and clearly articulated problem with a tangible solution was ignored in the name of prioritizing the University’s history and reputation above its students. Rather than celebrating the graduates — the express purpose of a commencement ceremony — the University is hijacking our day in order to celebrate itself.
Admittedly, this may seem trivial in light of more serious issues affecting students and graduates, but it is nonetheless frustrating that the University ignored student concerns for no reason other than to promote itself. After four years of hard work here, it is disappointing to me and many other seniors that the University would not consider a simple student request.
Elisabeth Brennan is an LSA senior.