Some soon-to-be-graduates and parents are upset that the University of Michigan's spring commencement ceremonies won't include a major keynote speaker, as the event instead focuses on the Ann Arbor school's bicentennial celebration.
The university announced this week that commencement would be a "unique Michigan Stadium event that features voices from the school's past and present, Oscar-winning musicians and special alumni awards" on April 29.
But a number of students and parents quickly asked: What about a big-name speaker? The university's previous commencement ceremonies have included speeches by President Barack Obama in 2010, former President Bill Clinton in 2007, former President George H.W. Bush in 1991, Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011 and an assortment of well-known leaders from politics, business, academia and journalism over the years.
Milena Beltramo, a senior from West Bloomfield, said it's a long-standing tradition that the university commencement features high-profile speakers.
"They're well known and they speak to the hard work and dedication the students put into getting their degrees, and the sort of forward-looking attitude the students can leave the university with," Beltramo, who will graduate with a degree in political science, international studies and German, said this afternoon. "This is an integral part of the university experience."
She said the decision not to have a keynote speaker is "a little rich" in light of recent troubles the university has gone through, with students of color speaking out against a sometimes hostile racial environment on campus. "It feels more like the university is concerned about its image than its students," she said.
University officials defended the choice of how to celebrate.
"We understand that our plans for a unique ceremony this year have raised concerns among some of our students that graduation will not feel special," the university said in a statement. "The goal is to celebrate the achievements of our graduates and make this a truly memorable experience for the students of our bicentennial-year class. We remain confident that when the ceremony concludes, graduates and their families will have a sense of their exceptional place in the university's history."
In announcing the commencement festivities, the university said it commissioned a fanfare and will offer a video of presentations by university leaders, faculty and graduating seniors, along with current students. The ceremonies also will include a multimedia performance of historic commencement addresses delivered live by university dignitaries.
The university said it will honor 20 notable alumni, including Google Glass creator Babak Parviz, actor Darren Criss and former NFL and Wolverine football player Charles Woodson.
"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," university President Mark Schlissel said in this week's announcement.
The changed-up commencement also comes as the university plans to celebrate the anniversary with the celebrity-filled "True Blue! A Tribute to Michigan" April 8 at Hill Auditorium, featuring actor James Earl Jones doing a reading of Willy Loman's speech from "Death of a Salesman," written by the late Arthur Miller; both he and Jones are U-M grads.Other alums on tap are CNN medical expert Sanjay Gupta, former "Glee" star Criss, actresses Margo Martindale and Christine Lahti and "Hamilton" producer Jeffrey Seller.
Student body President David Schafer said he understood the university's need to mark the bicentennial in an exceptional way, but he said what was most disappointing was how student concerns raised earlier about not having a major commencement speaker were disregarded.
"When students almost unequivocally rally against something, I think that's a telling sign," said Schafer, who'll be graduating with a degree in an individualized major in human rights studies. "The last thing I would want to see is students skipping the commencement. It provides a wonderful opportunity for the Class of 2017 to come together for one last time to celebrate their accomplishment."