Civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson to speak at Spring Commencement


Bryan Stevenson, a noted civil rights attorney who has worked to exonerate prisoners on death row, will deliver the address to graduates during the University of Michigan’s virtual Spring Commencement on May 1.

Famed choreographer Twyla Tharp will give the Rackham Graduate Exercises virtual address April 30.

The two speakers, both MacArthur Fellows, are a key part of the university’s plans to conduct a robust and celebratory virtual commencement that will include student performances and speakers, and the conferring of degrees.

The university announced the plans last month, citing ongoing and uncertain health and safety concerns from the global COVID-19 pandemic. 

Honorary degree recipients will be recommended to the Board of Regents at its March 25 meeting.

In response to student feedback, the ceremony will allow students and families to come together online at one time and participate interactively. All graduates will receive a commemorative program book after the ceremony that includes their names and degrees.

In addition to the virtual ceremonies, the university will offer a number of experiences designed to honor this year’s graduates, including an opportunity for students to take part in one of multiple socially distanced photo sessions on the field of Michigan Stadium beginning April 6.

more information

The sessions will include free professional photographs and the opportunity for students to take their own photos with graduating friends and classmates. Students will be encouraged to wear their graduation attire for the photos and will receive a special commemorative graduation tassel. Those who do not participate in person will receive the tassel by mail.

University officials will provide additional instructions on signing up for these sessions soon. 

“The University of Michigan Class of 2021 is achieving a wonderful milestone in their lives and academic careers,” President Mark Schlissel said. “We’ve heard from them that they want inspiring commencement speakers and the opportunity to have a celebration in Michigan Stadium. We created our photo event in the Big House and invited influential leaders to share their message and make this spring special for our graduates.”

Additional opportunities and safe in-person experiences for the graduates during this year’s commencement season will be announced in the weeks ahead. The university has previously announced that it also is continuing to explore plans to bring the classes of 2020 and 2021 back for a future in-person celebration when public health conditions allow.

Author and advocate for the wrongly condemned to address grads

A bestselling author whose memoir, “Just Mercy,” was adapted into a 2019 major motion picture, Bryan Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan in the movie, founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 to provide legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons. He continues to serve as its executive director.

Under Stevenson’s leadership, the organization based in Birmingham, Alabama, has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults.  

The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, often referred to as the “genius grant,” and a professor at the New York University School of Law, Stevenson successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark 2012 case that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder violated the Eighth Amendment. He successfully argued another case that led to a 2019 ruling protecting condemned prisoners who suffer from dementia.

He and his staff at the Equal Justice Institute have saved more than 135 wrongly condemned prisoners from death row.

In addition to his legal work, Stevenson led the creation of two cultural sites founded by the Equal Justice Institute. Both opened in 2018 in Montgomery. The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration displays the history of slavery and racial oppression in the United States, while the National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors those killed in lynchings.

He is a 2017 recipient of U-M’s Wallenberg Medal, awarded annually to individuals who have shown a lived commitment to human rights and humanitarian principles.

Tony- and Emmy-winning choreographer will address grad students

Twyla Tharp is a choreographer whose work has expanded the boundaries of ballet and modern dance, and spanned more than five decades.

Tharp founded a dance company, Twyla Tharp Dance, in 1965, and has choreographed more than 160 works, including 129 dances, 12 television specials, six Hollywood movies, four full-length ballets, four Broadway shows and two figure skating routines.

In addition to choreographing for her own company, she has created dances for the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet and many other ballet and dance companies.

Her film credits for choreography include “Hair” in 1979, “Ragtime” in 1981 and “Amadeus” in 1984.

Tharp won two Emmy Awards in 1985 for “Baryshnikov by Tharp,” a television special that she choreographed and co-directed. She won a Tony Award for Best Choreography in 2003 for “Movin’ Out,” her dance musical set to the music and lyrics of Billy Joel.

A past MacArthur Fellow, Tharp also received the National Medal of the Arts, the Jerome Robbins Prize and a Kennedy Center Honor.

In 1992, she published her autobiography, “Push Comes to Shove,” and went on to co-author two additional books on creativity and collaboration.


Leave a comment

Commenting is closed for this article. Please read our comment guidelines for more information.