Playing it safe: 7 commencements with no guests

Spring 2021 ceremonies without family might be 'enormously disappointing' but at least they will be live for students.

Cornell University recently announced its decision to have live commencement ceremonies on May 29-30 – “good news” for its graduating Class of 2021 and those who were shut out in 2020.

In addition to addressing the potential setbacks of hosting such an event in a pandemic – namely that public health guidance could interfere and change those plans – President Martha Pollock offered this other caveat in her letter to the community:

“It is enormously disappointing to all of us that family and friends will not be able to join us in person for these ceremonies,” she said. “However, we look forward to sharing the celebration with guests near and far virtually via livestream.”

A difficult message to have deliver. For the second consecutive spring, parents and families at Cornell and institutions nationwide – including nearby Ithaca College – are being shut out of some commencement ceremonies. COVID restrictions and other factors are forcing Cornell to forego throwing caution and caps to the wind this year for its once-in-a-lifetime events.

“COVID-19 still poses a health risk to our campus and surrounding communities, and, while vaccination levels are rising, we expect that the pandemic will remain a significant concern throughout the summer,” Pollock said, noting too that Cornell is not only prohibiting guests from attending but discouraging them from coming to campus during that week.

Fellow Ivy League school Dartmouth College is also having an in-person commencement on June 13 but is not inviting guests, citing rising case numbers in New Hampshire.

“Due to health COVID-19 safety precautions expected to still be in place, only the graduates and an as-yet undetermined number of faculty and senior administrators will be allowed at the in-person ceremony,” the college told its community.

Even at institutions within each state, plans seem to vary. Some universities, like Southern New Hampshire, have punted on going live and will host ceremonies virtually. Meanwhile, 25 minutes up the road, the University of New Hampshire is planning an in-person event with two guests allowed.

Tickets for some, none for others

The Lone Star State illustrates how dramatically different commencements will look next month in terms of decision-making and guest allowances. For example:

  • The University of Texas is planning a big commencement at 100,000-seat Darrell Royal Stadium … with “limited guests allowed.” (Other universities, including West Virginia University, also have announced they will provide limited tickets).
  • Texas A&M University is hosting its ceremonies at indoor Reed Arena, where students are being allowed eight tickets. (Multiple universities have adopted this scenario … though not indoors, especially those with large football stadiums or big outdoor venues, such as the University of North Texas, Virginia Tech and the University of Arizona, which are offering students four tickets each).
  • But the University of Texas San Antonio, which is planning a live commencement in May, will have no guests. That prompted the editorial board at its independent student newspaper to decry the decision, especially since the university allowed tickets for guests this season at football games (17% capacity) at the Alamodome.

UTSA, Cornell, Dartmouth, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania simply determined it wasn’t feasible to host ceremonies safely with guests. Taking a more conservative approach, UTSA fell back on its 2021 spring guidance for “limited in-person activity, appropriate physical distancing and the use of face masks.”

Providence College in Rhode Island is another institution at the mercy of COVID restrictions in state. It will host its commencement ceremony on May 20 without guests in an outdoor on-campus ceremony (that has yet to be determined). Providence usually hosts its ceremony at the 12,000-seat Dunkin Donuts Center downtown, where its basketball team plays, but the arena has become a vaccination side.

“God willing, we will be able to have the entire class in one venue to share in this celebration together,” Rev. Kenneth Sicard, university President told the Providence community. “We have multiple contingency plans in place, in the event that we have to use one or more settings to comply with distancing requirements, or if we have to go inside because of inclement weather.”

Not every university that has a midsize football stadium can open for guests and families. In accordance with health and gathering guidance from the state’s Department of Higher Education, the University of New Mexico is allowing students only for its May 15 commencement. Families and guests can watch through its GradStream 2021 portal.

President Garnett Stokes told the UNM community: “While I know this still isn’t the commencement you imagined when you started here, I am still delighted we’re able to celebrate your achievements in person, and with your fellow Lobo graduates.”

One of the more unique options on the table for students at the College of Charleston is deciding which site they’d prefer for commencement – the traditional  performance venue Cistern Yard or the Patriots Point Soccer Stadium. Students overwhelmingly, and surprisingly, favored Cistern, where no guests will be allowed. At the soccer stadium, students can invite four guests. Charleston is offering both.

“Rest assured that no matter which ceremony you attend, your health and well-being and that of your guests, remain our number-one priority,” the college said.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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