The inspirational words and work of leaders past and present served as a guiding light for University of Michigan graduates as they began their own journeys into the future at Spring Commencement on Saturday.
In honor of U-M’s bicentennial, the ceremony for more than 7,000 graduates featured several unique elements, including performances by Oscar-winning songwriting team and U-M alumni Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a multimedia performance of historic commencement addresses, and the presentation of 10 Bicentennial Alumni Awards.
In his remarks to the graduates, seated on the Michigan Stadium field, President Mark Schlissel imparted three lessons about discovery: Sometimes their experiments will fail, sometimes their interpretations will be wrong, and, finally, that society will only progress to its full potential if people use the knowledge created through the discovery process to inform decisions.
At U-M, he said, the commitment to discovery is sacred, and it was former U-M President Henry Tappan who transformed higher education by proposing a university “whose teaching and research would be grounded in open and critical inquiry.”
“Tappan’s vision is the foundation of each of our 19 schools and colleges,” Schlissel said. “To this day, in our 200th year, it’s what sets us apart. It defines our university, and it makes a U-M education different.”
“I hope you will never give up your search for knowledge and understanding,” Schlissel said. “If you keep searching, using the lessons you learned here, you will always find them. Because nothing can hide from a Wolverine forever.”
Throughout the ceremony, graduating students of diverse cultural and academic backgrounds introduced various parts of the program.
In these preludes, the students invoked the past and present, speaking to guests about the history of their schools and U-M as well as briefly sharing their own stories about their lives, academic experiences and goals.
The multimedia performance “As We Go Forward …” displayed historical video footage on stadium screens while current university dignitaries on the stage read portions of historic commencement addresses. Malcolm Tulip, assistant professor of theatre and drama in SMTD, created the presentation.
The montage featured addresses delivered by such dignitaries as Presidents Barack Obama and George H.W. Bush, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, legendary singer Marian Anderson, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
In one portion of the montage, Susan Collins, dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, recited parts of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s renowned speech unveiling the “Great Society.”
“Your imagination, your initiative and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth,” Collins read from Johnson’s speech. “For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.”
“The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all,” Collins continued. “It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.”
In his remarks, Interim Provost Paul N. Courant quoted Confucius, who once advised to study the past if one would define the future. Courant said while U-M officials are confident this year’s graduates will shape the future, they also believe lessons and examples from the past “will be valuable touchstones for them” as they contribute to communities around the world.
“In that spirit and in recognition of 2017 as the university’s bicentennial year, our ceremony today draws upon our 200-year history and recognizes recent alumni who exemplify the university’s commitment to shaping and serving society,” Courant said.
During the ceremony, the university honored 10 alumni with Bicentennial Alumni Awards. The Spring Commencement recipients were:
• Candice Yee-June Chang (Bachelor of Science, ’01, architecture, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning; Bachelor of Fine Arts, ’01, Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, graphic design), creator behind the public art piece “Before I Die.”
• Christopher Paul Curtis (Bachelor of Arts, ’00, general studies, UM-Flint), author of “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” recipient of the Newberry Honor and Coretta Scott King Honor.
• Abdul M. El-Sayed (Bachelor of Science, ’07, political science and biology, LSA and Medical School), former Detroit Health Department executive director and health officer.
• Carol Jantsch (Bachelor of Fine Arts, ’06, SMTD). principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
• Cynthia Koenig (Master of Science, ’06, School of Natural Resources and Environment; Master of Business Administration, ’11, Stephen M. Ross School of Business), founder and CEO of Wello, an award-winning social venture that co-creates disruptive innovations designed to provide better, more reliable access to safe water.
• Annie Maxwell (Bachelor of Arts, ’00, LSA; Master of Public Policy, ’02, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy), president of Skoll Global Threats Fund.
• Babak Parviz (Master of Science in Engineering, ’97, College of Engineering; Ph.D., ’01, CoE), creator of Google Glass and former director at Google X.
• Benj Pasek (Bachelor of Arts, ’06, SMTD) and Justin Paul (Bachelor of Fine Arts, ’06, SMTD), a Golden Globe- and Oscar-winning songwriting team.
• Damon A. Williams (Ph.D., ’02, School of Education, Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education), senior vice president at the Boys & Girls Club of America.
In a final video created by student-run production company Filmic Productions, graduates watched fellow students speak about their U-M experience.
This included stories about receiving acceptance letters, coming from families that bled maize and blue across the generations, and attending football games. They recounted the student groups in which they participated, and their memories of all-nighters, bar-hopping with their friends and walking down State Street.
“I’m going to remember Michigan, and remember that was home,” graduating senior Mark Haidar said in the video. “It immediately felt like home. And I know that when I go back to campus, it’s still going to feel like home.”