Ann Arbor — Dr. Anthony Fauci on Saturday encouraged University of Michigan graduates who weren’t allowed to walk across the stage two years ago due to COVID-19 to dream big, be future leaders, believe in facts and science and “do not accept the normalization of untruths.”
The nation’s top infectious disease doctor and expert in his nearly 15-minute commencement speech in Michigan Stadium also lauded 2020 and some of the 2021 Michigan graduates on Saturday for coping with college amid the coronavirus pandemic and making it back to graduate.
Fauci, in a clear jab at his battles with politicians in Washington over the pandemic and distortions about his leadership and ways to protect the public, made mention of the nation’s divisions that are stoked by those who aren’t on the side of truth.
“Being in Washington has allowed me to experience first hand the intensity of the divisiveness in our nation,” he said. “What troubles me is that differences of opinion or ideology have in certain circumstances been reflected by egregious distortions of reality.”
Sadly, he complained, “elements of our society have grown increasingly unfazed by a cacophony of falsehoods and lies that often stand largely unchallenged, ominously leading to an insidious acceptance of what I call the normalization of untruths.”
Fauci called out “so-called news organizations” and “certain elected officials in positions of power,” which drew applause from the graduates.
“If you remember nothing else from what I say today, I truly appeal to you, please remember this: It is our collective responsibility not to sink to a tacit acceptance of a normalization of untruths because if we do, we bring danger to ourselves, our families and our communities,” he said.
He also made mention at the so-called “Comeback Commencement” of why they were there in the first place two years later because of the deadly pandemic.
“Each of you deserves enormous credit and respect, and I mean that, for your extraordinary adaptability, your resilience, your dedication to learning, completing your studies and graduating despite immense difficulties in uncertainties,” Fauci said. “And I say with all sincerity that I am in awe of you for that.”
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, also received an honorary doctor of science degree on a sun-splashed day where the campus was flooded with young adults donning caps and gowns and smiles with family members in tow.
“Now I no longer feel like an outsider when I get carried away looking at the basketball and football games on TV,” he quipped to crowd laughter at the beginning of his speech. “And when I sing, Go Blue, now I’m legitimate, right?” The crowd roared in approval.
Fauci encouraged the graduates to give back and be leaders in their own way.
Leadership, he said, “can evolve from a variety of experiences and it takes many forms, including the quiet and subtle leadership of example.”
About 4,100 graduates were in attendance, most from the class of 2020 but some from 2021 who did not participate in their commencement, university officials said.
Teresa Wisner, 31, of Detroit, who didn’t get a formal graduation for her master’s of public policy degree in 2020, lauded his speech for its emphasis on facts.
“I appreciate that he talked about believing in science and what works,” she said.
Malika Begum, 30, of Atlanta, who also got her master’s in public policy in 2020, said she was “expecting a little more pizzazz” but loved his points of emphasis.
“He has a way of like connecting with the average person and I appreciate that,” Begum said. “He sounded relatable and (gave) generally good advice.”
The graduates’ excitement over having Fauci speak was palpable. The first mention of his name by University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman drew loud applause and cheers.
“We love you, Dr. Fauci,” one student belted out.
A broken ankle couldn’t keep Sean Grier, 36, of Ann Arbor, away from walking on stage. He was “thrilled” to be in attendance for his master’s in music education. He’s also now getting his doctorate in the same field.
“It seems kind of poetic that Dr. Fauci is speaking at this commencement two years later, sort of knowing that the pandemic was the reason that we were not able to all gather,” said the music student. “So it’s really special to be here with family and friends and loved ones and to know the university was willing to do that for us. It’s really, really special.”
Before Fauci’s speech, Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman said the coronavirus came with many lessons such as “the importance of science and the need for truth and accuracy.”
“The pandemic stole so much of what we know as the college experience: your interactions with professors, animated discussions with classmates, and a social scene you can only find in a university town like Ann Arbor,” she said.
“And you lost out on graduation. But you will always have your University of Michigan education. No event or person, no pandemic or protocol, can take that away. You earned a degree from one of the most challenging universities in the country. You have the critical thinking skills, the talent and the creativity to make a difference.”
Fauci, who grew up in Brooklyn, New York, also heads the NIAID Laboratory of Immunoregulation at the National Institutes of Health. He has advised seven presidents through major global health crises, including HIV, West Nile virus, swine flu, Zika virus and Ebola.
He has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Robert Koch Gold Medallion and the National Medal of Science.
Fauci joined the NIAID Laboratory of Clinical Investigation over five decades ago, in 1968.
He was a principal architect of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief launched in 2003, and advocated for increased AIDS research funding and access to experimental drugs.
He made reference to that time in what he termed in his speech as a “safe and comfortable career in investigative medicine” when he then became involved in dealing with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Before HIV-AIDS had a name, Fauci said “I decided right then and there to make abrupt change in the direction of my career … ” and “investigate the pathogenesis of this mysterious new disease.”
His mentors were “horrified,” he said, and were concerned he was “making a career-ending mistake and this disease would amount to nothing.” His decision to pivot to the public health challenge transformed his career, he said.
He told the graduates that in their future they will “confront the same types of unpredictable events that I have experienced regardless of what directions your careers and your lives take.”
“So please, keep a complete open mind and do not shy away from dreaming impossible dreams and seizing upon unanticipated opportunities,” Fauci told the graduates. “And so, expect the unexpected and stay heads up for an unanticipated opportunity should it present itself.”