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Thursday, July 16, 2020

Hillsdale College to host in-person graduation, despite state limits on gatherings

Hillsdale College is expected to host more than 2,000 people for an in-person graduation ceremony this weekend, despite a Michigan law that restricts the size of gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic and criticism from the state attorney general's office.

The ceremony was initially scheduled for May 9, but was rescheduled due to the virus. Hillsdale offered graduating seniors a travel stipend to return to campus for the in-person commencement, a somewhat rare event this year after colleges shut down to limit outbreaks.

The school released a list of safety precautions it is taking for the ceremony. Among them, graduates and other attendees will be screened for Covid-19 symptoms, required to wear masks and sit 6 feet apart from each other.

But Ryan Jarvi, press secretary for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office, said that "organized gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited by law in that part of the state, and such events clearly show a lack of consideration for the dangerous threat this virus presents."

The tiny Christian college that accepts no federal funds has multiple ties to the Trump administration. Hillsdale President Larry Arnn was a prominent conservative backing President Donald Trump in 2016, and Arnn was said to be considered a candidate for secretary of education.

Emily Stack Davis, a spokesperson for the college, did not confirm how many people were expected to attend. MLive reported that the ceremony is expected to bring 2,600 people to the city of 8,000 residents.

Jarvi said, “Should this event proceed, we trust the local law enforcement agencies to exercise their authority and discretion in their enforcement efforts.

“We sympathize with those who want to celebrate the success of college graduates, 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."

Hillsdale College said it had communicated its plans to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office more than a month before the events. The college also said it “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.”

The college, in a press release, said “Hillsdale College’s Commencement is an 'expressive activity' protected by the First Amendment.” So far, the college still intends to put on the ceremony.

"Commencement is the most significant event in the life of a college,” said Arnn. “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.”

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