GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg accepted the Commencement Committee’s unanimous recommendation to keep the ceremony on the Ellipse this week in a letter to Committee chair John Jenkins, associate dean of the GW Law School.
“Our students and others . in their shared enthusiasm, have made it seem indisputable that GW’s Commencement will be held on the Ellipse,” Trachtenberg wrote.
Trachtenberg said the Commencement ceremony will remain on the Ellipse in future years, barring refusal from the National Parks Service, which oversees the Ellipse and requires the University to submit a request each year.
“Today I have a clear indication of student disposition, and in future years I don’t think we necessarily need to pull the plant up by its roots to see how it’s doing. The Commencement Committee is history,” Trachtenberg said. “They’ve done a remarkable job with the task I gave them and I have made my decision. We’re not going to make this a cottage industry.”
Trachtenberg did leave the option open for moving the ceremony from the Ellipse down the road, saying he can’t “predict the future.”
Breaking from the Committee’s recommendation, Trachtenberg pledged University financial support for the Union Station Monumental Celebration held the night before Commencement.
“At least for 1998, I think we should try to continue the Monumental Celebration at Union Station . and I therefore commit to finding the money to provide support for that event this year,” Trachtenberg wrote.
The Commencement Committee, which submitted its report several weeks ago, had recommended the money the University spends on Monumental Celebration be used to defray the cost of the Ellipse ceremony.
Currently, the gala costs the University $60,000 more than what is collected in revenue from ticket sales, according to the Committee’s report.
But after reviewing the recommendations, Trachtenberg said he felt canceling University funding for the gala this year would be too “abrupt.”
“I did some sniffing around and I came to the conclusion that we may have to charge a little more for the tickets, but I think we can swing the celebration,” he said.
Trachtenberg said the tickets may cost $50.
He said he expects to “scrape” money out of several different budgets around campus and possibly raise some from outside sources, like alumni.
But he also noted that much will depend on the gala’s popularity this year when it is time to decide whether the celebration will be University-sponsored in the future.
“If it turns out that only a small number attend, then students will be voting with their feet,” Trachtenberg said. “We’re going to test empirically the attraction of the Monumental Celebration.”
Trachtenberg said he will continue to use the backup plan for Commencement that has been in place since the 1995 ceremony was canceled because of a lightning storm. He said the idea of using the MCI Center as a backup plan was “financially implausible.”
If Commencement is stormed out, graduates will attend a ceremony in the Smith Center, while a limited number of guests watch a cable broadcast of the ceremony in locations across campus – like Lisner Auditorium and J Street.
The Committee’s other fiscal recommendations, such as the Commencement Application Fee, will be put in place next year, Trachtenberg said. The fee, which will be a minimum of $50, will be set by the registrar’s office and paid by every student receiving a degree, whether they decide to attend the ceremony or not.
In addition, students will be responsible for purchasing their own regalia from the GW Bookstore starting this year, at a price of $16.50 for undergraduates and $32 for graduate students. This will save the University $87,000, according to the Committee’s recommendations.
Trachtenberg’s decision brings a close to the review process which began in October 1997 – when he convened the Committee to review the cost of Commencement events and the University’s method of funding these events, among other tasks.
One major task was to consider the benefits of the MCI Center as an alternative Commencement venue.
During the past few months, the Committee met four times, and a Commencement town hall meeting drew an outspoken student crowd of about 400 students to Funger Hall.
“I can say for myself how touched I have been by the dramatic and widespread student endorsement of the Ellipse as our Commencement site. I am delighted by this example of school spirit,” Trachtenberg wrote.
According to the Committee’s report, almost 1,000 people responded to a survey conducted over the University’s e-mail system, and more than 900 people signed a petition requesting Commencement remain on the Ellipse.
“In the collective experience of Committee members at the University, rarely has such an intense display of student sentiment been seen,” the Committee wrote.
“One would have to go back to the days of student protests over the Vietnam War – or to the aftermath of the 1995 Commencement – to find a precedent. This is a great testimonial to the positive change in student culture and attitude at GW in the last decade, and Committee members were immensely gratified to learn how much current students care about their University,” according to the report.
“It’s living testimony of our capacity to engage in fruitful and civil discourse on even a most difficult subject,” Trachtenberg said of the Committee’s report.
Trachtenberg wrote that he already is taking one step to ensure a successful Commencement.
“I have already begun to pray on a daily basis for a divine order that makes every Commencement day a glory of sunshine.”
This article appeared in the February 9, 1998 issue of the Hatchet.