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Thursday, June 13, 2024

'One of the galaxy's greatest universities': Fall commencement highlights UW-Madison's past amid shadow of DEI deal

UW-Madison celebrated winter graduates during Sunday’s commencement ceremony, headlined by speeches from Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin and Michael Finley, a two-time NBA all-star

The University of Wisconsin-Madison held its 2023 winter commencement ceremony on Sunday, a biannual tradition that, for the second consecutive time, came amid campuswide controversy surrounding diversity and inclusion.

During 2023’s spring commencement address, then-first-year Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin discussed the controversy over UW-Madison’s response to a video showing a student using racial slurs and violent references directed toward Black people.

Mnookin opted to focus on other aspects of the UW-Madison experience at Sunday’s ceremony.

“Most of you have learned to connect with people from different backgrounds, and sometimes profoundly different ideas,” she said.

Sunday’s ceremony came four days after the UW System Board of Regents agreed to a funding deal negotiated with Republican state lawmakers. The deal caps diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) positions in exchange for pay raise approval for more than 30,000 UW System employees and building funds, including nearly $200 million for a new UW-Madison engineering building.

UW Board of Regents member Kyle Weatherly spoke at commencement but did not bring up the deal. 

Weatherly, the youngest non-student member of the Board of Regents, gave a short speech to graduates that implored them to spend time with family and friends and “not pour a gallon of lighter fluid on a curbside couch and throw a match at it.”

Weatherly was one of 11 regents who voted in favor of the agreement Wednesday. UW System President Jay Rothman, a vocal supporter of the deal, was also present for Sunday’s ceremony.

Commencement boasted a cheerful environment despite the recent controversy. 

After UW-Madison Provost Charles Isbell delivered the university’s land acknowledgment, the crowd applauded, an unusual response to a speech that UW-Madison has made an integral part of large ceremonies including commencement and convocation.

Mnookin dedicated a substantial portion of her address to alumni from UW-Madison, which she lauded as "one of the galaxy's greatest universities." She told the story of Jim Lovell, an astronaut on the Apollo 13 mission, in addition to highlighting accomplishments of other Badgers.

“It's here in every one of you, in this momentous sphere of our own university's history, you are ready to go out and take on the impossible,” Mnookin said. “I can't wait to see what you do next.”

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The event also comes weeks after a neo-Nazi group, Blood Tribe, held a rally in downtown Madison — something commencement speaker Michael Finley, a UW-Madison alum and two-time NBA all-star, mentioned in his address Sunday. 

“[The march] is the kind of thing that we're not supposed to see here in America. It’s certainly not what we're about,“ Finley said. “This is the place that taught me to love and respect our differences. This is the place that prepared all of us to meet this moment.”

Finley asked graduates to “help people open themselves up to others,” recounting stories such as winning a contest as a high school student to play a one-on-one game against Michael Jordan, his recruitment to UW-Madison and his journey in the NBA.

“It’s always good to be home,” Finley said. “You may be leaving UW, but UW will never leave you.”

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Jasper Bernstein

Jasper Bernstein is news manager for The Daily Cardinal. He previously served as the associate news editor, covering city, campus and breaking news. Follow him on Twitter at @jasperberns.

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