Colleges where live commencements are occurring … and aren’t

Graduation ceremonies have been given the green light at several institutions, with many precautions in place, while others are left to fend with virtual events

Some colleges and universities, particularly across the South, have begun to welcome back in-person commencement ceremonies.

Tracy Fitzsimmons, president of Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., said the reason is simple.

“These graduates deserve more than anything the recognition and honor that comes with walking across the stage and graduating in front of their peers and loved ones,” she said.

So Shenandoah is hosting back-to-back live graduating ceremonies this Sunday at noon and 2 p.m., which will give students who were honored virtually in May and those who finished in August the chance to experience a traditional live commencement and receive their diplomas.

“Will it be the same as our usual commencement ceremonies? No, but it will still be a very special celebration for each of our graduates,” Fitzsmimmons said. “I am so proud of all of our graduates and what they’ve accomplished. This is a tough year to graduate and to enter the job market.”

Shenandoah is taking many precautions to make the dual ceremonies happen:

  • Notably limiting its gatherings to 250 people apiece – down from the usual 5,000 – and providing grads with only two tickets for guests.
  • Asking attendees to fill out a form 48-72 hours prior to the events to ensure they are symptom-free. They also will be temperature-checked as they arrive at the indoor Wilkins Athletics & Events Center.
  • Offering socially distanced seats that will be 10 feet apart.
  • Deep cleaning is being done throughout the arena before and after each event.
  • Providing 25 staff members – along with Department of Public Safety officials – to ensure distancing measures are being met and facemasks are being worn.

The ceremonies each will be limited to 45 minutes to an hour. For those who cannot attend in person, they will be livestreamed on Facebook and via Zoom.

Where other colleges are doing

Like Shenandoah, other institutions recognize the value of the experience and have been given clearance by state and local health departments to do so.

Two of the most notable are Georgia Tech University and the University of Georgia, both of which are planning larger-scale ceremonies at their respective football stadiums, provided it is safe to do so.

“A venue of this size will allow for appropriate physical distancing — and one of the best views of the city from campus,” Georgia Tech’s website notes of the 55,000-seat Bobby Dodd Stadium.

UGA is holding its fall commencement this Friday at its 92,000-seat Sanford Stadium (with a backup day planned on Saturday) while Georgia Tech has scheduled three events for Dec. 11 and Dec. 12 for its spring and summer bachelor’s and master’s students; fall master’s students and spring, summer; and fall Ph.D. students and fall bachelor’s students.

Even with expansive stadiums, however, the universities recognize that elements within those ceremonies may have to be scrapped, warning students and parents that there may be no processional. UGA is also cautioning its arriving guests about parking restrictions, saying “visitors should be prepared to walk significant distances, up to 1 mile, from parking and throughout the stadium.”

The good news for guests: At Georgia Tech, there will be limited concessions and the allowance to bring flowers. At UGA, grads and guests (four tickets each) will be honored with a fireworks ceremony at the conclusion of the event.

Some more notable in-person ceremonies taking place include:

  • Texas A&M University, which is hosting 15 separate commencements over five days for more than 4,000 students at the Reed Arena on Dec. 10-12 and Dec. 17-19. Like many other institutions considering live fall ceremonies, in-person instruction will have ended, lessening the amount of those who will be on campus.
  • Stephen F. Austin University will hold its ceremonies Dec. 11 and 12 at the Johnson Coliseum (6,100 seats) for its fall graduates, as well as for those who graduated in May and August, with a six-ticket allowance for guests.
  • Indiana State University will have four in-person commencement events, also on Dec. 11 and 12, at the 10,000-seat Hulman Center. Aside from standard safety precautions during the pandemic, ISU will be socially distancing its students on the graduation floor. Still, they’re thrilled to be putting on the ceremonies, says ISU President Deborah J. Curtis said. “We are taking extensive safety measures and it will be a different kind of commencement. But what won’t change is the celebration of our students’ accomplishments and the joy of having their family and friends present.”
  • The University of Tennessee announced on Friday it will offer four days of in-person live commencements – with 200 graduates allowed at each event along with a “limited number of guests” – on Nov 19-22 … just before the fall semester closes.

Where they aren’t happening

Unfortunately, not all institutions have the luxury of hosting live gatherings, either because of expanded safety precautions on campuses or because of more cautious public health mandates.

The state university system in Florida has asked its institutions to find alternative options, and so Florida State University is hosting a virtual ceremony on Dec. 11.

The University of Missouri on Friday decided it would also go virtual for its fall commencement. Though it provided few details, it did say that it would explore an in-person ceremony for May and August graduates. The University of Connecticut also canceled its in-person ceremony planned for this month, but said it will host a live event “when conditions are safe to do so.”

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, sent information to students saying it had canceled its live ceremony planned for December and instead will go virtual. “We understand that this news is disappointing for graduates and their families,” president Keith E. Whitfield said. “Commencement is the most important day in the life of a university, and we were looking forward to celebrating in person with you.”

Many of those decisions have been met with resistance. According to news reports, students at The University of South Alabama, they are fuming over the decision to switch ceremonies from in-person to virtual, noting that its football team opened a new stadium a month ago and was allowed to play before 6,000 fans. And students at Youngstown State have started the petition “Let Us Walk 2020” asking administrators to host commencement ceremonies in the fall, according to WKBN.

Decisions are difficult for college administrators who want to safely offer ceremonies but also must do them in a timely fashion. University Business recently put together a list of tips for those seeking to host an in-person commencement safely.

When all else fails – and a college doesn’t want to hold a virtual event or can’t provide one on campus – they could turn to other, more unique options. This one might only work for the smallest of colleges but is nontheless intriuging: Last spring, officials from Davis and Elkins College brought commencement ceremonies to 11 different towns and cities where students were located during a “Journey Tour,” where social distancing, masks and even self-quarantining of leaders occurred.

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at [email protected]

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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