It’s the time of year when campuses nationwide should be buzzing with joyous graduates donning caps and gowns. Yet many celebrations are muted—again—as schools turn to virtual or postponed commencement ceremonies due to pandemic concerns.
To be clear, commencements are difficult to execute even in “normal” years. Holding an in-person commencement during a pandemic is no simple undertaking and requires even more careful planning.
But sometimes the harder path is the correct path to take—especially when the student experience is at stake.
Wentworth Institute of Technology, which I serve as president, safely celebrated three commencement ceremonies earlier this month, even welcoming back Class of 2020 graduates. We replicated, as closely as possible, our traditional commencement experience, all the while enacting measures to promote the well-being of participants and our local community.
We did so because, simply put, it was important to our students and their families. Students have already lost so much during this pandemic. In considering how best to navigate a complex commencement decision, we returned to a core tenet: Students are our reason for being. Their success sustains us. And we must do everything to support them, even when it is not the most convenient option.
As institutions continue through the pandemic and plan for fall, we must remember these crucial principles of leadership, which aided us in our own planning. If we do not regularly exercise these leadership muscles, our decisions will suffer.
And yet sometimes these basic principles are the most difficult to remember, especially in challenging times:
Focus on students. No matter how busy we are, we must remember to keep our students front and center—students like Michael, who spoke at commencement about his journey from life in the Dominican Republic to attending a university in Boston, and Sarah, who challenged herself with multiple co-ops before starting her passion project to convert a school bus. We can learn from our students’ diverse perspectives, experiences and needs, and we must center them when making any decision, even when it carries risk.
Seek input from your board and your administration. Talk with these key stakeholders as early and as often as possible. Strive for candid conversations, as this openness can strengthen the outcome of any plan. Above all, be honest: Do not underestimate risks, and do not overstate opportunities. This past year, my board chair and I met at least weekly, and building that trust helped us move the institution forward and speak with a unified voice on important issues.
Strengthen partnerships with your city and state. The city of Boston exercised great caution throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which worked to Wentworth’s benefit in planning our commencement ceremonies. Their thoughtfulness helped us keep our campus and local communities safe, and our relationship will serve all of us well as we plan for fall.
Take the long view. Humans are not meant to endure months on end of crisis. Our strategic thinking suffers as a result. As an economist by training, I am perhaps more accustomed than many to continually weighing tradeoffs and risks for every decision. Yet I must still remind myself that, especially when under duress, it can be all too easy to focus on immediate payoffs and ignore long-term consequences. We must prioritize thoughtfulness over convenience.
‘Our reason for being’
Above all, we must remember that as educators, we are in the business of transforming lives. Our daily decisions must reflect that mission. We have a responsibility, both now and once the pandemic is through, to serve our students holistically. Everything we do must be to benefit our students.
When faced with the decision of whether to hold our commencement in-person, I thought about students like Daidlithza, who graduated from Wentworth this spring after leaving her home country of Venezuela, learning English, working as a waitress to save for her education and transferring in to finish her degree.
In pursuing higher education, Daidlithza did not take the easy road, and to be able to celebrate the milestone conclusion of her undergraduate studies in person meant everything.
Students like Daidlithza, who pour everything they have into their education, serve as a powerful reminder: In pursuing a transformative education for our students, we must not take shortcuts, and we must always remember our reason for being.
Mark A. Thompson is president of Wentworth Institute of Technology.