Hillsdale College to host in-person graduation; AG office says event is prohibited

Hillsdale College is planning a commencement celebration this weekend with masks and social distancing  as cases of COVID-19 have been trending upward in Michigan — a move that has “gravely concerned” the governor and the attorney general’s office has called illegal.

The private, conservative college in southeast Michigan known for eschewing government funding rescheduled its May commencement to this weekend, with festivities set to begin Thursday for the first .

Ryan Jarvi, press secretary for the Michigan Department of Attorney General Dana Nessel, said organized gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited by law in that part of the state.

“Such events clearly show a lack of consideration for the dangerous threat this virus presents,” Jarvi said. “Should this event proceed, we trust the local law enforcement agencies to exercise their authority and discretion in their enforcement efforts.” 

Hillsdale County Sheriff Tim Parker said his office has not enforced any of the governor’s orders during this pandemic, and has no intent to do so now.

“We are really busy here, dealing with a lot of problems in this community,” said Parker. “We are not going to an event like the one at Hillsdale College and go in there as a counter and ticker in an effort to enforce that order and issue tickets.”

“We just don’t have the manpower, nor is that a top priority of our community,” Parker added.

It is the first-known college in Michigan to host an in-person commencement ceremony since the global pandemic first arrived in Michigan in March.

In an email obtained by The Detroit News, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn told students on Tuesday that he was looking forward to the festivities, but it comes as, “Michigan’s Governor tightened mask and distance restrictions, thereby complicating the proceedings.” 

Arnn told students to wear a mask whenever they are indoors, and also when they are outside if they are unable to maintain a physical distance of six feet from others. The college said it would provide a mask to those who do not have one. If someone is not wearing a mask, college officials would “respectfully assume that you have a medical condition that exempts you from the Governor’s mandate,” Arnn wrote.

The ceremony is planned for outdoors with chairs spaced six feet apart. Those in attendance would be subject to screening for COVID-19 symptoms such as a high temperature taken at stations around the campus.

He also suggested that those who are sick, have had the virus, are older than 70 or have a compromised immune system to not attend the ceremony.

“Commencement is the most significant event in the life of a college,” Arnn wrote. “As old as the first universities, this milestone represents the conclusion of the College’s labor and also inaugurates an even greater undertaking: each graduate’s commencing to live a good and happy life in accordance with the highest principles, a life for which they have spent four years preparing.”

But the attorney general’s spokesman said the pandemic has upended normal operations.

“We sympathize with those who want to celebrate the success of college graduates,” Jarvi said, “but the unfortunate circumstances surrounding this pandemic have made that difficult for many, and we encourage alternatives to large assemblies that could further jeopardize the health of many people.”

Festivities for graduation at Hillsdale began Thursday, with students picking up their caps and gowns. A cocktail hour, sunset dinner and afterglow are planned later Thursday, according to an informal calendar obtained by The News.

On Friday, seniors will paint the sidewalk, faculty will gather for a mixer and luncheon, and practice will be held for commencement. The day will end with a reception with the president and a midnight dinner. 

Saturday will include the commencement ceremony, followed by a reception.

Hillsdale College’s decision comes as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Wednesday that COVID-19 cases have on an uptick in Michigan and the state is at a “turning point” in the fight. She encouraged residents to wear their masks in compliance with an executive order that mandates wearing of masks in businesses or large gatherings to mitigate the virus’ spread.

Zack Pohl, communications director for Whitmer, said the governor “does not direct particular enforcement actions and has not done so here.” 

“She of course is gravely concerned whenever people disregard her executive orders, especially as case counts escalate in the state and we are witnessing a nationwide surge in cases,” Pohl said. “There’s no excuse for not taking the health of our fellow Michiganders seriously.”

In a press release, the college said it has taken many steps to make the campus safe including needlepoint bipolar ionization technology — installed in campus HVAC systems to kill mold, bacteria and viruses within buildings.

It will also sanitize with Clorox seating and surfaces between events and set up a link to livestream the event.

The press release said it revealed its plans not only with graduates and guests, but also with state officials.

“More than one month prior to the event, the College notified Governor Gretchen Whitmer and her team of its intention to hold commencement ceremonies and related activities on campus during the week of July 12,” the press release said. “The College also continued to work with local law enforcement and health officials; the state Attorney General’s office likewise suggested this was the appropriate and necessary step.”

Rebecca Burns, health officer for the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency could not be immediately reached. But she told Crains Detroit that the college informed her of its plans and she was disappointed due to participants traveling from across the country.

“I have no words for how disappointing it is to me that the college would put the Hillsdale community at such risk,”  Burns said.

Hillsdale College’s decision contrasts with other universities that have opted to have virtual celebrations honoring its graduating class. 

Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities, said none of the 15 public universities in the state have hosted an in-person commencement ceremony thus far. 

Robert LeFevre, president of Michigan Independent Colleges & Universities, added that he is not aware of any in person graduation ceremony held by the 25 nonprofit colleges and universities that it represents.

“We have been very careful and safe when it comes to our students and are not risking any additional in-person activity that is not necessary or is in violation of the CDC guidelines or the governor’s orders,” siad LeFevre.

Asked what he thought about Hillsdale’s commencement ceremony, he said, “Hilldale is Hillsdale.

“They will always be Hillsdale,” LeFevre said. “They have a very strong Libertarian streak. Their compass guides them. We wish them the best of luck.”

Oakland University — which postponed its commencement ceremony to the weekend of Aug. 28 — has been reviewing several options for commencement including an in-person ceremony.

But it opted for a drive-in ceremony instead.

 “The ongoing virus pandemic was of paramount importance in our planning as was the fact we were determined to comply with the governor’s executive orders on public gatherings.”  Stephanie J. Lee, administrative associate in the Oakland University Provost’s Office and Academic Affairs.

Lee emphasized that even though Oakland University will have four separate ceremonies to spread out the size of the in car gatherings, that masks will be required to participate.

On Hillsdale’s website, it says if rain forces the event from outside, graduates, faculty and parents will be moved to the Biermann Athletic Center. 

Other guests could watch commencement via livestream in either the Plaster Auditorium, Searle Center, Lane Classrooms or a large tent in the quad. Capacity limitations will apply.

Hillsdale College’ decision also comes as the college announced weeks ago that it would host college classes in the fall.

Its press release asserts that a graduation ceremony is “an ‘expressive activity’ protected by the First Amendment. “

“It is a ceremony rich with symbolism and meaning,” the college said. “Since 1856, the College has exercised those rights by holding annual commencement exercises–including during the Civil War, World War I, the 1918 Pandemic, the Great Depression and World War II. Despite the trauma of those times, which have been particularly severe on this campus, Hillsdale College has stood by the ceremony as the culminating meaning of the work of the College and as indispensable to its mission.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com

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