GW students have continually stated their resolve to hold the annual Commencement ceremony on the Ellipse and graduate in the “backyard of the White House” since the tradition began less than ten years ago. Debate over the ceremony’s location peaked in recent years, when administrators explored the option of holding the ceremony indoors.
GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg combined the University’s several small Commencement ceremonies into a unified event on the Ellipse in 1992, when he said a group of students who had lived together for four years approached him saying they were disappointed they would not be able to graduate together.
D.C. lacked an adequate indoor facility to house the entire commencement at that time.
“We saw we had the opportunity to do it on the Ellipse, which would make it special,” Trachtenberg said. “It was a great success and developed a tradition of its own.”
Doubts about the outdoor ceremony began in 1994, when professional stage riggers were concerned that strong winds would blow the stage roof off into the audience, according to a January 1998 report from the Commencement Committee. The 1994 ceremony transpired without a major problem.
The University began to reexamine the outdoor ceremony when 1995’s Commencement disappointed 20,000 graduates and guests after severe lightning strikes on the Ellipse forced GW to cancel the ceremony. The University lacked a sufficient back-up plan and held only a brief ceremony for a few hundred people in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre.
Many parents and students wrote and called the University to condemn GW for an insufficient Commencement contingency plan, and The Hatchet and The Washington Post printed editorials criticizing GW planners, forcing the administration to question the Ellipse for Commencement exercises, Trachtenberg said.
“That’s why things were looked at,” Director of University Special Events Jim Hess said. “Should we really continue to do this?”
After 1995, GW reserved the Smith Center for a backup location in case of severe weather. The Smith Center could accommodate about 5,000 graduates and guests, and the remaining guests would view the ceremony from closed-circuit television at other campus locations.
In 1996 the Commencement was held in record heat, despite conditions medical professionals deemed unhealthy, the committee reported.
During the 1996-97 academic year, Trachtenberg formed a Commencement Committee to evaluate the possibility of moving it to the newly built MCI Center, the first indoor facility in the District that could accommodate the large Commencement crowd.
The committee reported benefits of switching to the MCI Center,
including seating for more than 20,000 people, air conditioning, lighting and video setups, parking, on-site food, water, restrooms and elimination of the need for a backup plan.
Students opposed the MCI Center option with discord.
“One would almost have to go back to the days of student protests over the Vietnam War . to find a precedent,” the committee reported.
In fall 1997 a group of students formed the Student Alliance for the Ellipse, a grass-roots organization that circulated petitions, maintained a Web site and planned meetings with administrators to relay student concerns on the proposed move.
More than 400 students and faculty members packed a Funger Hall town hall meeting with the 30-member Commencement Committee in November 1997 to express opposition to a ceremony at the MCI Center, which opened Dec. 2, 1997.
The committee reported more than 900 respondents of its survey of 1,000 students over GW’s e-mail system wanted to continue to hold the ceremony on the Ellipse.
Students cited GW recruitment brochures that said, “you will graduate in the back yard of the White House” as a contract between the University and its students. Recruitment brochures now read “you will graduate in the city of presidents.”
Hess said students might have wrongly assumed the University was seeking to pull the ceremony from the Ellipse.
“There may have been miscommunication from both sides,” he said.
Following the 1995 Commencement cancellation, the University only requested input from students and explored possible alternative sites, Hess said.
“The administration wanted to make clear the downside to doing it on the Ellipse,” he said.
Trachtenberg said he requested input from students to make the Ellipse ceremony a democratic decision.
“I’m prepared to go either direction,” he said. “I wanted partners in the decision. I wanted students making the decision along with me.”
GW’s Class of 1998 graduated on the Ellipse by default because the Commencement Committee was unable to obtain sufficient cost estimates for the MCI Center. The committee also suggested students purchase their own regalia and require all graduates to pay a $100 Commencement fee for the first time to help pay for the elaborate Ellipse setup and ceremony, Hess said.
“The University wants this event to be the best it can be for students,” he said. “If students want to be on the Ellipse . our position is to do our best to do that.”
As long as students continue to support the outdoor ceremony, the University will comply with students’ wishes, Hess said.
“The University’s standpoint is as long as it is the will of students to be there, we’re doing whatever we can to keep it there,” Hess said.
GW would cancel Commencement only if the National Park Service deemed weather conditions “life-threatening” due to severe lightning strikes, said Rachel Frantum, park manager of President’s Park, where the Ellipse is located.
“It would not be prudent on the part of the University and Park Services to have that out there (in those conditions),” she said.
If inclement weather forces the University to rearrange commencement plans, students should know they had the opportunity for an indoor ceremony, Trachtenberg said.
“If it rains, people are going to come to me and ask me why I didn’t have a big umbrella,” he said. “I have a big umbrella – the MCI Center.”
Trachtenberg said he seeks input from students for each year’s ceremony.
“(If Commencement is cancelled) people are going to look for someone to blame,” Trachtenberg said. “This is a decision we made as a community. There are no bad guys.”
The Student Association Senate unanimously passed a bill sponsored by SA President David Burt last November, demanding the University continue Commencement exercises on the Ellipse.
“If we’re afraid of lightning, then there’s a ban on one of the greatest GW traditions that exists,” Burt said in November.
Earlier this year, administrators said proposed construction of a parking garage under the Ellipse could force the University to relocate Commencement within the next few years. But National Park Service officials said construction under the Ellipse is still 15 to 20 years away.
When construction begins, the Park Service may be able to construct under the Ellipse without an open pit, allowing the ceremony to continue above the construction, said Ann Smith, assistant director for project development for the White House Liaison office of the National Park Service.
“I don’t think you can say yet whether the garage will disrupt anything,” she said. “This will not affect graduates in the near future at all.”
Hess said if the University moves future ceremonies, the MCI Center might no longer be available, depending on playoff schedules of local sports teams. The U.S. Airways Arena in Landover, Md., may be the only other feasible option for an indoor ceremony, he said.
Administrators and students share a desire to continue the Ellipse tradition, Hess said.
“Those years when it’s a nice day, you can’t have a nicer event,” he said. “It’s worth being somewhat nervous about.”