Congratulatory video messages and other virtual activities replaced traditional commencement ceremonies as the University of Michigan community celebrated the Class of 2020 online amid the coronavirus pandemic.
President Mark Schlissel, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, university deans, notable alumni and many others were part of a daylong online event May 2 that included music performances and the chance for graduates to show off their maize-and-blue pride on social media.
Schlissel said in remarks posted to his “On the Agenda” blog that the pandemic created challenges, but also sparked innovations.
“As a society, we need talented individuals in all disciplines to challenge the uncertain future that the pandemic has thrust upon us. We know that life will be very different, in the near future and likely beyond. Our great faculty and staff have worked diligently to prepare you.
“I hope you will take the time to cherish this moment — as you are now University of Michigan graduates — before deciding what your role will be in tackling the challenges that lie ahead.
“I am ever so grateful that you, the University of Michigan Class of 2020, will rise to meet them.”
Schlissel highlighted what he said was one of U-M’s proudest moments: the 1955 announcement from Thomas Francis Jr. of the School of Public Health about the success of the massive polio vaccine field trials he had helped organize.
Schlissel said society is now confronting a challenge that is similar in many ways to the polio epidemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life throughout the United States and all around the world,” Schlissel said. “But it has revealed once again the importance of research universities and the need for educated, creative and talented people to rise to confront a major societal problem.”
In an email to graduates, Schlissel noted the challenges they faced in their last weeks at the university, when courses were abruptly moved online and many events were canceled.
“Your final semester was one of unexpected difficulty, as you were forced to cross the finish line to graduation during a global pandemic,” he said. “You persevered and did it nonetheless.”
Gore, who had been scheduled to speak at commencement at Michigan Stadium, said in a video message that he was disappointed that everyone couldn’t gather together to celebrate the Class of 2020.
“Of course, disappointment is the least of the burdens that so many of our fellow Americans and people around the world are carrying right now, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take a moment to celebrate what you have accomplished,” Gore said.
“And may I say in the tradition of what would have been a commencement speech, take the lessons you’ve learned and take the values you’ve absorbed and put them to work in a lifetime of accomplishment that is just ahead of you.”
Dramatist, actress and playwright Dominique Morisseau also offered her best wishes to graduates. She had been scheduled to deliver the Rackham Graduate Exercises address at Hill Auditorium.
“I know these are challenging times, and even though we can’t gather in person, I do believe that these are the times that show us who we are and what we’re really made of,” she said.
In another video, Schlissel, Interim Provost Susan M. Collins and deans from schools and colleges across the university tipped their hats to the Class of 2020. Each person “passed” a virtual diploma to the next person who was speaking.
U-M created a website, commencement.umich.edu, that served as a central location for the May 2 virtual celebration. The university’s social media channels provided a wide variety of content throughout the day.
University officials are working with members of the Class of 2020 to organize an in-person commencement ceremony at a later date.
A variety of video musical tributes included members of the Michigan Marching Band and the Men’s and Women’s Glee Clubs performing “The Victors” via Zoom, and a remote performance by the glee clubs of the alma mater, “The Yellow and Blue.”