In a bid to help fix a divided country, Anthony Fauci encouraged the University of Michigan’s Comeback Commencement crowd to challenge untruths and push back on the “egregious distortion of reality” that permeates social media and “so-called news organizations.”
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, spoke at the May 7 event, two years in the making due to the COVID-19 pandemic for which Fauci helped guide the nation’s response.
In his Michigan Stadium address, he discussed the divisiveness of the nation and his view of its intensity from Washington, D.C. He said the “normalization of untruths” has invaded elements of society, propagated by “certain elected officials in positions of power.”
“If you remember nothing else from what I say today, I truly appeal to you, please remember this: It is our collective responsibility not to sink to a tacit acceptance of the normalization of untruths, because if we do, we bring danger to ourselves, our families and our communities,” he said.
“This is how a society devolves into a way of life where veracity becomes subservient to propaganda rather than upheld as a guiding principle for creating and sustaining a just social order.”
Conducted under cloudless skies and a steady breeze, the Comeback Commencement was for spring and winter 2020 graduates from U-M’s Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses who missed out on traditional commencement ceremonies due to the pandemic. Winter 2019 graduates and those who graduated in 2021 also were invited to attend. University Development and Events reported that approximately 4,100 graduates RSVP’d for the event.
Prior to his address, Fauci was presented with an honorary Doctor of Science degree and received a loud and sustained ovation from the crowd. Outside the Big House, dozens of demonstrators gathered with signs at the corner of Main Street and Stadium Boulevard, while others paraded through the streets of Ann Arbor honking horns.
Fauci spoke for about 15 minutes, telling graduates he was in awe of them for the perseverance, dedication to learning and adaptability they showed when their educational pursuits were interrupted by the pandemic.
To that end, he suggested they continue to expect the unexpected.
“Planning and charting one path in life is something we’ve all done to a greater or lesser degree,” he said. “Keep a completely open mind, and do not shy away from dreaming impossible dreams and seizing upon unanticipated opportunities.”
He shared a story about how his own career path changed in 1981 when, after nine years, he left what he called a “safe career in investigative medicine” at the National Institutes of Health to investigate the virus that was causing the nascent AIDS pandemic.
“Please believe me that you will confront the same types of unpredictable events that I have experienced regardless of what directions your careers or your lives take,” he said. “You need to listen to others who care about you, but at the end of the day, go with your own gut. It can be rewarding, exciting and career and life altering.”
Fauci encouraged graduates to assume leadership roles, including the “quiet, subtle leadership of example.”
He closed by offering a reminder of the “joyousness of life to come” by quoting American political theorist John Homer Schaar: “The future is not someplace we are going to, but one we are creating, the paths are not to be found but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”
The crowd responded with a standing ovation.
In her remarks, President Mary Sue Coleman elaborated on a theme that “life does not always go as planned” — not for the classes of 2020 and 2021, whose commencements were delayed, or for herself, who retired in 2014 only to find herself temporarily back in the U-M presidency eight years later.
“And yet we adapt and persevere. That is how educated, creative, responsible people respond to challenges. We press on and find ways to improve our lives and the lives of those around us,” Coleman said, citing as examples:
• The research of U-M alumnus Jerome Horowitz, who in 1964 helped create a compound that was hoped to slow the growth of cancer cells. Tests on mice showed no positive progress and the drug was shelved. More than two decades later, Samuel Broder, another U-M alumnus and a colleague of Fauci’s at the National Institutes of Health, developed Horowitz’s drug — AZT — into the first genuine treatment for AIDS.
• Alexa Canady, whose struggling grades as a U-M undergraduate derailed her hopes of becoming a mathematician. But a health sciences fellowship led her to change her major to zoology and eventually enroll in the U-M Medical School. She became this country’s first African American woman neurosurgeon and chief of pediatric neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan.
• Two-time plane crash survivor Austin Hatch, who achieved his life’s dream of signing to play basketball at U-M — nine days before his second airplane accident claimed the lives of his father and stepmother, and left him with a traumatic brain injury from which it took three years to recover. He remained on the basketball team, eventually scoring all of one point in competition.
“But I would argue it was one of the most meaningful baskets in campus history,” Coleman said, pointing out that Hatch went on to create his own enterprise devoted to helping others overcome their challenges.
“Austin likes to quote his late father, who once told him, ‘We’re going to press on. That’s what we’re called to do,’” Coleman said. “We are pressing on. That is what we said in 2020, when the coronavirus turned our lives upside down, here on campus and beyond.
“The pandemic stole so much of what we know as the college experience: your interactions with professors, animated discussions with classmates, and a social scene you can only find in a university town like Ann Arbor. And you lost out on graduation.
“But you will always have your University of Michigan education. No event or person, or pandemic or protocol, can take that away.”
Provost Susan M. Collins acknowledged that when the pandemic began in early 2020, no one knew how severe or long-lasting it would be.
“To maintain my focus on learning and growing, I’ve kept this African proverb in my mind: ‘Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors. Sometimes the waters will not be still. And it is there that we learn the most,’” she said.
“We have made great progress in managing the pandemic, yet the world still faces many complex and intersecting challenges. And your judgment and your choices will play a critical role in addressing them and shaping the future.”
LSA Dean Anne Curzan congratulated the graduates for their “resilience and perseverance,” and reflected on how people were feeling at this time two years ago.
“We were all discombobulated. It was a time when many of us were wiping down groceries, scared to touch doorknobs, and living and working in bubbles,” she recalled.
“And for this graduation, we’ve had time to recombobulate. This relatively new word, recombobulate, is my small graduation gift to you. … A key skill in life, recombobulation. It acknowledges that life can kick us around and leave us in disarray, discombobulated. And we recombobulate, knowing we’ll have to do it again.”
Afeefah Khan, who received a Master of Management degree from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business in 2020 and her bachelor’s degree from the School of Public Health in 2019, was the student speaker.
“Class of 2020, what we thought was going to be a two-week hold turned into two difficult years. However, we know that we may leave Michigan, but Michigan never leaves us,” she said. “I am honored to be part of this Wolverine community, one that encourages using our leadership to serve others and provides the experiences needed to truly be: the leaders and best. Thank you and Go Blue!”