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Hillsdale College insists commencement is legal, safe; AG and health dept disagree

Hillsdale College

  Dr. Harle Vogel says he found out on Tuesday that Hillsdale College was planning to hold an in-person, outdoor commencement ceremony this Saturday. As medical director for the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency, Vogel says college officials told them as many as 2,600-plus people could be in attendance. That’s despite an executive order banning events of more than 100 people in that area. 

“My guess is they know they’re in violation of Governor Whitmer’s executive order, and it’s probably why they didn't notify us until the very last minute,” Vogel said on Friday. “That’s a guess. I don’t know what’s in their minds.”

Vogel says he and the agency’s other health officials believe this is happening at a particularly dangerous moment in the pandemic. 

“One of the issues we’re having nationwide for sure, but also in Michigan, is our infectivity rate is increasing. That’s not just the number of cases across the state, but also the infectivity, which means how many people are reinfecting others...So, when you’re having a ceremony that’s estimated to have 2,600 people and we’re not sure where they’re all coming from, out of state, maybe, but [certainly] out of the close locale, certainly that many people...is going to be a significant risk.” 

But Robert Norton, Hillsdale College’s Vice President and General Counsel, insists the school alerted the local health department to the commencement plans in a June 22 meeting. 

“I’m a little troubled by that,” Norton said Friday. “...We laid out what we were looking to do. They were thankful for the communication, and we heard nothing negative or nothing like ‘tap the brakes on that’ at all. Maybe that was because we shared with them that we were working also with top epidemiologists in this country. And I think they've also come to know if Hillsdale does something, we try to do it in a polite and respectful way.” 

Hillsdale College officials released multiple press releases this week outlining safety precautions for the event, including screening temperatures, encouraging anyone with symptoms not to attend, and having health stations staffed by nurses. And they cited both the legal and medical expertise they’ve sought in planning and executing this weekend’s ceremony, including support from the mayor of Hillsdale and the county prosecutor. 

But Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office was unpersuaded, calling the event illegal in a statement:

“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. 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.”

Yet Norton “respectfully disagrees,” he says, pointing to the Hillsdale County prosecutor’s opinion that the commencement is protected under the First Amendment’s right to free expression. 

“We are doing just that. When you compare and contrast what we're doing here to say, the protests, that by the way the state, as far as I know, continues to say were fine, the governor herself took part in, we're going to have people that are six feet apart. We consulted with four different epidemiologists…

“And we took the most stringent guidelines and put those into place. And we've stressed upon our students and people attending, we want to be very respectful of the downtown community. And again, I'm surprised somebody would say we're doing this in anything other than a fully compliant way.” 

Credit The College Board
Hillsdale College will hold an in-person commencement ceremony on Saturday, over the protests of both the state attorney general's office and the local health department.

The college also referred media to one of the medical experts they consulted, Dr. Jayanta Bhattacharya, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University and an expert in health care economics. (Bhattacharya also published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in March, arguing the “projections of the death toll [from COVID-19] could plausibly be orders of magnitude too high.”)

“There are always risks involved in anything we do,” he said. “Certainly there are more risks than doing nothing. Whether the risks are worth it, is up to the participants...people have to make their choice based on that, where they weight that against their benefit. In this case, the benefits are a once-in-a-lifetime event for their students and their families.” 

Norton argued the additional risks of holding the event (as opposed to a virtual one) were outweighed by the “solemn and sacred” nature of Hillsdale’s commencement ceremony. 

“Maybe to some other schools, it's more of a pep rally... I can't speak for them,” he said.  “But here, this is more analogous to, say, a wedding ceremony, if you will...

“We were respectful of the whole COVID situation. We moved the date. Among other things, that allowed us to get more information, to have the guidance of the governor and also of epidemiologists, so that we could do this in a safe way. But it is very important. The college has spent a lot of extra money holding the commencement in this way. We've had to take over our football field and our stadium, and bring in the chairs and make sure we have all of the things necessary for this kind of social distancing. And as to why other schools didn't do that or might not still do that, I can't speak for them. But we hope maybe we're setting a good standard here of how it can be done in compliance with the governor's orders. And maybe that's a path forward for others to follow.” 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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