Spring Commencement will include unique bicentennial elements


The University of Michigan’s Spring Commencement ceremonies will celebrate the bicentennial-year graduates with a unique Michigan Stadium event that features voices from the past and the present, Oscar-winning musicians and special alumni awards.

The April 29 event will celebrate the 2017 graduating class and honor the university’s 200-year history.

“Our bicentennial commencement gives our community the opportunity to honor the graduates of the Class of 2017, along with the amazing 200-year-old legacy of excellence and impact that they are joining,” says President Mark Schlissel.

The ceremony will begin with a commissioned bicentennial fanfare composed by Roshanne Etezady, a lecturer and alumna in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. It will be followed by an ROTC commissioning ceremony led by a former U.S. Navy “top gun” pilot, Vice Admiral Walter E. “Ted” Carter, superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.

It will include presentations by an array of university leaders, faculty members and graduating students. A presentation directed toward future classes of U-M graduates will be shared by current U-M students.

“Our team of 18 students has been working hard to make sure the video is a success,” says Jin Kim, U-M student and producer of the student video. “Our goal is to feature diverse voices and to learn about the intricacies and collective moments of the Michigan student experience.”

There also will be a multimedia performance that will include portions of historic commencement addresses delivered live by current university dignitaries. The video presentation is being produced by Malcolm Tulip, assistant professor of theatre and drama in SMTD.

“For years now, we have become used to seeing great speeches and events on video. In the early days of the university this documentation did not exist or was lost,” Tulip says. “This project assembles a series of excerpts from significant speeches from the university’s past. In seven minutes, graduating students and their families will gain a sense of their place in the university and nation’s history.”

Graduates will be seated on the field of Michigan Stadium. This break from tradition is reserved for special occasions. It also allows more seating for the families and friends of graduates. Each graduating student will be able to get an increased number of tickets to the spring ceremony at the Big House.

U-M faculty members are invited and encouraged to march in the commencement processional and attend the historic event.

“Graduation, as always, is principally about the academic achievements of the students who are graduating,” says Paul N. Courant, interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “We are pleased and proud to honor them and their achievements.”

To celebrate their role in the creation of the university, delegates from the 12 federally acknowledged American Indian tribes in Michigan have been invited to the ceremony. Additionally, representatives from all Michigan counties, and delegates from other universities and colleges also are invited. These honored guests will join the commencement processional.

Instead of bestowing honorary degrees, the university will honor 20 alumni — 10 at each commencement ceremony during 2017 — with a special Bicentennial Alumni Award.  The awards were designed to highlight the excellence and impact of recent graduates and reflect a desire to acknowledge the university’s past contributions and herald the future achievements of the Class of 2017 and future classes. Award recipients were chosen by a campus committee based on nominations from the community.

“The alumni awards give us a very special opportunity to recognize individuals from our more recent past who can inspire our community through their outstanding ongoing work,” Schlissel adds.

The ceremony will include a musical performance by two of the Bicentennial Alumni Award winners, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The songwriters this year won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for the song “City of Stars” from the movie “La La Land.” They are planning a performance that will include students from SMTD.

Bicentennial Alumni Award recipients

The university will honor 10 alumni during the Spring Commencement ceremony. Award recipients include:

Candice Chang

Christopher Curtis

Abdul El-Sayed

Carol Jantsch

Cynthia Koenig

Annie Maxwell

Babak Parviz

Benj Pasek

Justin Paul

Damon Williams

• 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).

According to The Atlantic, Chang’s public art piece “Before I Die” is “one of the most creative community projects ever.” She created the interactive public art piece to battle grief and spark community dialogue.

• Christopher Paul Curtis (Bachelor of Arts, ’00, general studies, UM-Flint).

Over the past two decades, Curtis’ books have received rave reviews and top honors. His first book, “The Watsons go to Birmingham,” won a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Honor. It was the only book for young readers recognized in The New York Times’ Top One Hundred Books of the Year (1996).

• Abdul M. El-Sayed (Bachelor of Science, ’07, political science and biology, LSA and Medical School.

El-Sayed was appointed health officer and executive director of the city of Detroit in 2015. Under his leadership, the health department emerged as a state and national leader in public health innovation, environmental justice and lead elimination.

• Carol Jantsch (Bachelor of Fine Arts, ’06, SMTD).

Jantsch has been principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 2006, a position she won during her senior year at U-M, making her the first female tuba player in a major symphony orchestra. An in-demand soloist as well, Jantsch holds faculty positions at Yale and Temple universities. The winner of many awards and honors, her most peculiar award was winning the “Tuba Throwing” contest at a tuba player conference in Finland in 2005.

• Cynthia Koenig (Master of Science, ’06, School of Natural Resources and Environment; Master of Business Administration, ’11, Stephen M. Ross School of Business).

Koenig is the 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).

As president of Skoll Global Threats Fund, Maxwell works to combat pandemics, water insecurity, nuclear proliferation and climate change by identifying leverage points where focused energy can have an outsized impact. Prior to being hired by Skoll, Maxwell received a White House Fellowship, one of roughly a dozen chosen annually based on remarkable professional achievement early in their career.

• Babak Parviz (Master of Science in Engineering, ’97, College of Engineering; Ph.D., ’01, CoE).

Parviz is the creator of Google Glass and former director at Google X. His work has been on display at the London Museum of Science and has received many awards including the NSF Career Award, MIT TR35 and Time Magazine’s award for best invention of the year. In 2012, he was selected by Ad Age as one of the 50 most creative people in the United States.

• Benj Pasek (Bachelor of Arts, ’06, SMTD) and Justin Paul (Bachelor of Fine Arts, ’06, SMTD).

Pasek and Paul are a Golden Globe- and Oscar-winning songwriting team. Their work can currently be seen on Broadway in the hit show “Dear Evan Hansen.” They also wrote the music and lyrics for the musicals “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” “Dogfight,” “James and the Giant Peach” and “Edges,” which was written and first produced when they were SMTD students. Their lyrics for the song “City of Stars” for the film “La La Land” garnered numerous awards, including a Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Song.

• Damon A. Williams (Ph.D., ’02, School of Education, Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education).

As senior vice president at the Boys & Girls Club of America, Williams leads the program strategy impacting 4 million diverse youth in the areas of academic success, good character and citizenship, and healthy lifestyles for the world’s largest youth development organization. The author of “Strategic Diversity Leadership” and co-author of “The Chief Diversity Officer,” his award-winning research has impacted diversity strategies at post-secondary institutions worldwide.  Prior to joining BGCA, he founded the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement and was the inaugural chief diversity officer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also served on the faculty. Williams also is the Rackham Graduate Exercises speaker on April 28 in Hill Auditorium.

Ten individuals also will be honored during the Winter Commencement ceremony. Award recipients include:

• Rebecca Alexander (psychotherapist, extreme athlete, disability advocate).

• Tonya Allen (president and CEO, The Skillman Foundation).

• Carla Dirlikov Canales (mezzo-soprano; U.S. State Department Cultural Envoy; winner, Sphinx Medal of Excellence).

• Darren Criss (actor, singer, songwriter).

• Catherine Drennan (professor of biology and chemistry, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

• Senait Fisseha (director of international programs, Susan T. Buffett Foundation).

• Heather Hill (Jerome T. Murphy Professor in Education, Harvard University).

• Matthew Kotchen (professor of economics; associate dean, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies).

• Jesmyn Ward (novelist; winner of the National Book Award for “Salvage the Bones”; associate professor at Tulane University).

• Charles Woodson (entrepreneur and philanthropist; Heisman Trophy awardee and former U-M football player; former NFL Player).

(Note: This article has been amended from its original version to include new biographical information for Damon Williams.)



  1. Milena Beltramo
    on March 27, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    I cannot express how disappointed I am in the lack of a well-known speaker. This may be the university’s way of celebrating its own bicentennial, but it feels like a cost-saving slap in the face to the students who are actually graduating. With speakers like Michael Bloomberg, the CEO of Twitter, Barack Obama, a founder of Google, and a former astronaut giving commencement speeches over the past decade, the absence of a commencement speaker in favor of a video and faculty speech is a huge let down. If I wanted to hear “presentations by university leaders, faculty members, and graduating students”, I would have stayed another year instead of graduating.

    • Don Fisher
      on March 29, 2017 at 1:05 pm

      I would rather celebrate the 200 yrs than listen to a disappointing political figure like Bloomberg or Obama.

      • Norman Hamann
        on April 1, 2017 at 8:41 pm

        I thought we were going to my daughter’s graduation commencement address not a Ted talk. My dad got to hear Marian Anderson when he graduated in 1959, I got to hear Lee Iacocca in 1983, and my wife heard Walter Cronkite in 1984. There is nothing as moving as a speaker sharing their words in person. Who’s got it better then us? On April 29 everybody!

      • kr kr
        on April 10, 2017 at 3:42 pm

        How do you celebrate 200 yrs by saying you don’t want to hear from any inspirational speakers? Speakers didn’t have to be from any political background, there are so many inspirational leaders that could’ve been invited. According to you, one can celebrate 200yrs by staying home and watching a foot ball game too. But what’s special about that?

  2. Laura Ward
    on March 27, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    As a parent, I want to convey deep disappointment about the planning of this commencement. One certainly would expect a notable speaker for a I’M commencement. This feels more like a Lions Club centennial celebration. I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment

  3. Anonymous Anonymous
    on March 27, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    As a graduating senior, I also want to express my disappointment with these commencement elements. There should be separate ceremonies that celebrate the university’s history and honor distinguished alumni. The commencement ceremony should solely focus on celebrating the current graduating class (who technically is not even the 200th graduating class) and their accomplishments. I feel like I am being cheated for my commencement ceremony……

  4. Judy Goldman
    on March 27, 2017 at 8:51 pm

    What should be a memorable university bicentennial celebration is instead going to be forgettable. No one is going to be interested in listening to a group of distinguished alumni speak. It is a let down to the graduating class not having a standout keynote speaker, considering the caliber of past speakers who have inspired, entertained, and left lasting impressions on graduating students of years past.
    What was something we all looked forward to with excitement, will now be something we doze off at. As an Alumni parent, this is not the way to expect fundraising dollars from me or this year’s graduating class. An explanation would be appreciated, as feeling cheated is quite an understatement.

  5. Anonymous Senior
    on March 27, 2017 at 10:28 pm

    am graduating this spring. I have seen my sister graduate as well as many friends throughout the years. Every single one of them got the chance to see a significant person speak to the CURRENT GRADUATES about the future ahead. This seems lost on the suits in power. This has turned into a horrible act of greed on behalf of the University to deprive my graduating experience of the wisdom they dispose. I THINK IT IS ABSOLUTELY A DISGRACE to think that a video and a music performance will suffice.

    I am not proud to be graduating from Michigan on its bicentennial. I have witnessed egregious use of funds over my four years on useless crap. Almost $400,000 to move a tree for Ross!! Yet you can not fund a speech by a credible professional for graduation yet alone its 200TH BIRTHDAY

    You might see this post as disrespectful or lacks class but I believe, and I speak for thousands of graduates, that its disrespectful to make our graduating experience a highlight show from other graduations and take the spotlight of the event off the graduates. If I wanted to watch Obama, Clinton, Bloomberg, Gupta speak to OTHER GRADUATING classes I would watch it on YouTube.

    This will make me and thousands of others to think twice when donating money in the future to this school.

  6. Disappointed senior Disappointed senior
    on March 27, 2017 at 11:35 pm

    I was extremely excited for graduation and its respective ceremony. After four years of hard work and expensive tuition, I expected to celebrate my graduation the way so many others have done before me. Even though the administration has an alternative to this tradition, it sounds like a cost-saving measure and a huge let down to our senior class. We have had amazing speakers in the past, and I was looking forward to living that experience this April 29th. I understand the university may want to do something different for the bicentennial, but this is just not good enough. It’s not too late, this is the University of Michigan, we are the leaders and best and we deserve nothing less than an amazing speaker like the ones previous classes have had.

    I hope the administration finds a way of honoring the graduating class and its wishes.

    • kr kr
      on April 10, 2017 at 3:48 pm

      If the “different” way of celebrating 200 yrs was to do something very special on this momentous occasion to up the ante, that would’ve been nice. Watering it down to some cheap presentation of the past years’ celebrations is truly a slap in the face! I am beyond mad as a parent whose only child is graduating this year!

  7. Horribly disappointed Alum and Parent
    on March 28, 2017 at 12:12 am

    I am sorely disappointed in this commencement decision on so many levels. 1. It is another example where President Schlissel just doesn’t get it…”it”~ the UM tradition, the Michigan difference. Throughout commencement season, I read with pride who are chosen speaker has been and yet, this year, it will be a montage. Seriously? 2. Why does the graduation ceremony have to be the forum for the Bicentennial? Have it another time. 3. The graduation ceremony is the culmination of hard work and dedication the students have put forth before heading out into the world. Is a video montage really that inspiring? and 4. I can’t help to think that this, along with Pres.Schlissel’s other politically motivated actions,is another political decision of the University and if Hilary Clinton had won, she would have been the speaker. I hope they cashed my tuition check. That is the last dime they are getting. Go blue…..or rather, we just want to go home.

  8. Margo Killian
    on March 28, 2017 at 9:15 am

    As an alum and parent of two children at Michigan, I cannot express my disappointment at the graduation decision to have this be the forum for the bicentennial celebration. The graduating students do not care that this is the university’s anniversary. they want to celebrate their achievements, not the university’s. I graduated 30 years ago, and I still remember so much of the speaker and the send off and motivating speech he gave. This graduation is about the kids, not the university. I am deeply disappointed in the university’s decision to go this route, even though they promised the kids they would have a speaker after the outcry in the fall over the video montage. Please committee, and President Schlissel, please please reconsider this- and find a speaker for the graduating seniors. They deserve it. thank you

  9. Vanessa Cheris
    on March 28, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    I am also disappointed with the University’s decision to not contract a big name speaker for our graduation. I expected a keynote announcement that would fit the grandeur of a 200th anniversary and this fails to hit the mark. Now, I will only be attending the School of Business ceremony.

  10. Rita Shah
    on March 28, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    I am extremely disappointed on learning that there will be no distinguished speaker for the graduating class. This is a bicentennial year and what a let down for the students. I hope the committee and President reconsider their decision.

  11. Disappointed Parent
    on March 29, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    Very disappointed. This article should read. Unique bicentennial event to also include commencement. This event is truly not about the students who worked hard to graduate but more about the university. If they really wanted to have this it should have been a separate event.

  12. Disappointed Doctoral graduate
    on March 30, 2017 at 3:19 am

    I feel absolutely betrayed. I wish I hadn’t ordered my cap and gown. I didn’t attend commencement ceremonies for my bachelors or masters degree, in hopes of crystallizing a lifeline of education (25 years in total) at my doctoral graduation and final commencement before I become a university professor. President Schlissel you let me and many others down with this cheap stunt. To all of those who have planned the bicentennial ceremonies: you appal me with your lack of creativity and common sense. By making this years commencement about the past (celebrating past alumni) rather than the future (getting inspired by a world renowned speaker) you have lost the loyalty of an entire class of graduates and their loved ones who had waited for years, sometimes decades, for such a moment. I will never look back at UofM the same way – immensely disappointed.

  13. Izabela Birsanescu
    on March 30, 2017 at 9:05 am

    It would be nice to have a speaker at graduation. If there is a way to arrange this, even last minute, I would recommend it! This is especially true since it is the university’s 200th anniversary!! I appreciate the privilege and honor to be attending and graduating from the University of Michigan. Thank you once more.

  14. Another Disappointed Parent
    on March 30, 2017 at 9:20 pm

    200th anniversary but you can’t find a speaker of renown to tell our hard working sons and daughters how well they have done. Really?!
    Someone who can wish them well in their future endeavors. Really?!
    Is this Michigan – leaders and the best? Really?!

    Really, it’s not too late.

  15. Sorely Disappointed Ward
    on March 31, 2017 at 6:44 am

    Whether unintentional or not, the plans for this event are insulting to graduating students, their families and friends. Even more insulting is the continued silence from the administration as students and parents continue to plead for re-consideration of this event’s focus and absence of a notable speaker. As the silence continues, what else can one conclude but that the university disregards its own students? As currently planned, students and their families are intended solely as warm bodies to be used to pack the Big House for a bicentennial event that of itself would never draw a significant crowd. Shame on you. Unless this is redressed, students and families should consider boycotting this “non-commencement” and hereafter address any questions of UM financial support with the same regard UM is showing the Class of 2017.

    • kr kr
      on April 10, 2017 at 3:35 pm

      I think the best way to send the message is to not send a penny to the University alum or anything else. That’s the only way they will get the message. I can’t believe how stupid a decision this is on such a momentous occassion! What on earth were they thinking? or may be they were not thinking at all and put together a last minute event like it’s not a big deal. More effort/thought was put into previous years’ ceremonies than this special, bicentennial year! What a shame!!

    on April 7, 2017 at 9:20 pm

    Too outraged for words. At least ones that are suitable for print. This is an absolute abomination and embarrassment. The committee and Dr. Schlissel completely missed the mark on such an important responsibility. The bicentennial event is not a celebration of 200 years of history, it is a celebration of what makes this the greatest university in the world — the common bond of greatness that runs through the maize and blue blood of the past, present, and future. The commencement could honor all three. The myopic “leaders” in charge of the event lost sight of this fact. Nobody wants to attend a boring documentary as a graduation ceremony. This is a disastrous failure.

  17. a student’s parent
    on April 10, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    Enough! What’s more important – a ceremony or four years of higher education our children are fortunate to receive? The current world has more important issues than a graduation speaker.

    • kr kr
      on April 10, 2017 at 3:54 pm

      Sorry but per your thinking, no ceremony needs to take place to celebrate your child’s accomplishments because there are other things going on in the world! There always will be but this is a special occasion in the students’ lives and it should be honored the proper way at least for a few hours. Given that this is a bicentennial year at that, it should be even more special! Your kid may not want to attend but others have waited a long time for this and they deserve better than this slap in the face, cheap way of celebrating this special occassion!

  18. rk kr
    on April 10, 2017 at 3:32 pm

    After hearing Bloomberg’s speech last year at my niece’s graduation, I was so anxiously waiting to see who would be the speaker at this year’s ceremonies when my own son is graduating! I kept thinking he was lucky to be graduating the same year as UofM’s bicentennial year. Instead, this has been an unbelievable disappointment by having some amateur video shown on such a momentous occasion! When my son told me this last night, I was truly shocked and upset at this. Apparently the president doesn’t get it. This is once in a life time occassion and how can such a dumb decison be made to save a few bucks? Is anyone listening?

  19. Priscilla McKinnon
    on April 15, 2017 at 7:13 am

    PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE find a speaker. Ask Jim Harbaugh to do it! If the plans stay as they are – video montage and no keynote speaker – then I will NOT give any money at all to the University of Michigan in the future. It’s sad to say, but it’s true. I won’t even open the envelopes that come in the mail requesting donations, and I will simply delete any fundraising emails. These graduates deserve so much better

  20. Nina Primer
    on April 25, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    After reading and hearing so much negativity about the lack of a speaker at the 2017 Graduation, I offer an alternative view of gratitude for the four wonderful years my granddaughter has spent at the U of Michigan and the extraordinary education she has received. The glory of a Bicentennial year is the vision of the founders, the heritage, high standards, magnificent national recognition of Michigan, and the promise of a future for the next generations to receive the same. If not for their courage, there would not be a graduation in 2017. I will look upon and see this graduating class of April 29, 2017 as standing on hallowed ground. Congratulations to graduates, alumni, proud parents, entire families and especially those who will continue to support this legacy. A speaker is for a moment…bicentennial memory is forever.

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