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A conservative college in Michigan is planning to hold an in-person graduation ceremony that could draw as many as 2,600 guests and students, in defiance of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s social distancing guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officials at Hillsdale College say they have notified county health officials of their plans to hold the in-person graduation over the weekend even as coronavirus cases rise in the area, reports noted.
In internal emails, county health officials criticized the college’s plans, but noted that there was little the state could do to prevent the ceremony.
”The individuals that do come to visit the community will not just be at the commencement ceremony,” Rebecca Burns, a Hillsdale County health officer, told Crain’s Detroit Business. “They will be staying in hotels and eating in restaurants. So the larger community is put at potential increased risk because of the large number of individuals coming from outside of town.
“I think we’re a little too late for any kind of enforcement, frankly,” Burns noted further.
The state’s attorney general’s office indicated that any kind of enforce ment action to prevent the in-person ceremony would have to come from local police agencies.
“Should this event proceed, we trust the local law enforcement agencies to exercise their authority and discretion in their enforcement efforts,” spokesman Ryan Jarvi told Crain’s.
He added 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.
“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.”
According to Michigan’s coronavirus tracker, the southern portion of the state has had the most infections. But the hotspot is Detroit and the surrounding area. The number of cases in the areas surrounding Hillsdale College range from a couple hundred to just over 500.
Its president, Larry Arne, is a strong backer of President Donald Trump and came out strong for him during his 2016 campaign, Politico noted, adding that Arne was at one time considered for secretary of education.
The Christian-themed school accepts no federal funding. Founded in 1844 by staunch abolitionists, its classical liberal arts curriculum focuses on constitutional conservatism. The school also features a network of private charter schools, a graduate school in statesmanship, and “considers itself a trustee of our Western philosophical and theological inheritance tracing to Athens and Jerusalem,” according to its mission statement.
The school publishes a monthly newsletter that is free and offers two free online courses, “Introduction to the Constitution” and “Constitution 101,” which have enrolled some 1.2 million people.
As for the school’s in-person graduation ceremony, Hillsdale Police Chief Scott Hephner suggested to Crain’s that Hillsdale College officials had been in consultation with the state and thus would not be in violation of any current coronavirus-related orders.
“I have been told that they have done research, gotten input from epidemiologists, and I believe, have reached out to the state for planning purposes, and their intent is to do it so they’re not in any technical violation,” he said.
Initially, graduation was scheduled for May 9 but was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. School officials said that everyone in attendance will be screened for the virus.
In a press release, the institution noted, “Hillsdale College’s Commencement is an ‘expressive activity’ protected by the First Amendment.”
“Commencement is the most significant event in the life of a college,” said Arne. “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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