After year of battles, grads revel on Ellipse

Student workers waded through thousands of empty Aquafina water bottles to stack 22,000 folding chairs in the aftermath of Sunday’s Commencement on the Ellipse. Thousands of newly-graduated GW students celebrated with family and friends, reveling under hazy skies.

It was, in the words of one administrator, “a great day of fun in the sun for GW.”

Sunday’s successful ceremony was the culmination of months-long controversy, debate and dialogue between students and administrators over a possible move from the Ellipse to the MCI Center.

But Sunday, few graduates or guests were wondering if anywhere could be better than the splendid backdrop of the Clintons’ backyard.

“(Bob) Dole’s speech complemented the whole idea of graduating on the Ellipse,” Student Association President Carrie Potter said.

“When you come to D.C., you’re in awe with the splendor of the city and the monuments, but after four years of school, you appreciate less and less the beauty of this place,” Potter said.

“And then here you are at Commencement, sitting between the monuments, and Dole is telling you to regain your perspective of your surroundings with a visit to the Lincoln Memorial or a trip to see the Capitol at night,” she said.

Debate and dialogue

GW has held its Commencement on the Ellipse since President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg brainstormed a unified Commencement in May 1992. But the University came under national criticism after a lightning storm in 1995 forced officials to cancel the ceremony.

Last fall, Trachtenberg charged a committee of faculty members, students and administrators with investigating the possibility of moving the ceremony to the new MCI Center downtown. The construction of the sports arena offered GW the first indoor facility in D.C. capable of seating the more than 20,000 people who attend GW’s Commencement.

“We didn’t want to be guilty of not fully exploring all options,” Director of University Special Events Lynn Shipway said. “Had (the 1998) ceremony been canceled, we would have had many critics.

“We wanted to be sure people understood the tradeoffs between having a virtually risk-free indoor Commencement versus having an event like this on the Ellipse,” she added. “It wasn’t that anyone was trying to force the MCI Center upon us.”

But a student-driven grassroots effort seemingly convinced the administration of the folly of giving up the Ellipse ceremony. Trachtenberg announced his decision Feb. 6 to follow the committee’s recommendation and continue an outdoor ceremony.

“It was wonderful for us to know that it was important to students . that it meant as much to them as it appeared to,” Shipway said.

Trachtenberg also threw his support behind Monumental Celebration, a gala at Union Station that had been slated to see slashed University funding after the committee’s review.

Shipway said her office sold more than 2,600 tickets to Monumental Celebration – a significant jump from last year’s 1,700 guests.

Trachtenberg will examine the breakdown of guests who attended the Saturday night party before he commits funding for future years, Shipway said.

“When we know what people want, it’s worth the work,” Shipway said.

Student solidarity

Potter said student teamwork and the SA’s advocacy were key components to a successful fight to keep Commencement on the Ellipse.

“It was definitely worth the price,” said graduate Kuyomars “Q” Golparvar, the 1997-98 president of the SA.

“I hope future classes will graduate on the Ellipse, but it will be up to future student leaders to continue the dialogue with the administration if they want to keep this beautiful place as part of GW’s tradition,” he said.

Ed Allen, a graduate of the Elliott School of International Affairs, said the battle to keep the ceremony on the Ellipse was worth the fight.

“If it had been canceled . well, at least we knew the risk. We were better off having it here,” said Allen. He added that the University should improve its backup plan. The current plan, developed after the rained-out 1995 ceremony, requires graduates to assemble in the Smith Center. It allots each graduate two guest tickets that allow relative and friends to watch a broadcast of the ceremony at locations around campus.

“When circumstances turn out as they did today, this is the best location, bar none, in the whole country,” said Rhoda Fischer, special assistant to the president.

  • See related editorial: Commencement ’98.
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