GW searches for alternate Commencement sites

The class of 2006 will be graduating – the University just isn’t sure where.

The May 21 graduation ceremony will not be held on the Ellipse, the National Park Service and University officials said Monday, because the site will be under construction through summer 2006. University officials said they are in “deep discussions” with other venues in the Washington, D.C., area, including the MCI Center, RFK Stadium and the National Mall, to reserve space for this spring’s ceremony.

“Our plan was to have Commencement on the Ellipse in 2006,” said Michael Freedman, GW’s vice president of Communications. “The National Park Service has taken the Ellipse away from us, and it was totally and completely out of our control.”

Freedman assured that the University will provide “a very fine, first-class Commencement for the class of 2006.”

While the University was first informed last May that this spring’s Ellipse ceremony could be in jeopardy due to construction, on Monday the University received final word from the National Park Service that the Ellipse will not be available. University officials received the letter after being told by The Hatchet that Park Service officials confirmed the site would not be available.

“As the National Park Service does with any of our other locations, we are responsible for the protection of these areas,” said William Line, communications director for the National Park Service. “The eastern half of the Ellipse is under construction, and the western side, where GW traditionally has the ceremony, will be under construction beginning this winter through the summer of 2006.”

Line added that construction was purposely done in phases to ensure the site would be closed for the least amount of time possible.

“We hope that GW will be understanding in realizing that there has been no major work on this site in more than 40 years and that it has to be done at some point,” Line said.

GW ceremonies will most likely be able to resume on the Ellipse in spring 2007, Line said. University officials have not said if graduation will return to the Ellipse upon the completion of construction.

Freedman said there have been no discussions as of yet to move Commencement beyond the spring of 2006 ceremony.

“First thing’s first. We want to take care of the graduating class right now,” he said.

Possible venues

The University began planning for a new Commencement venue last May but has been unable to secure a location for the 2006 Commencement ceremony. Freedman said the University is “keeping all options open.”

“We have been in active discussion with the MCI Center since first word came in from the National Park Service that there was a possibility that the Ellipse would not be able to be used,” Freedman said.

While the MCI Center would be an attractive location because it would protect attendees from weather-related delays on Commencement day, Freedman said a disadvantage is that the venue holds approximately 18,000 people. In recent years Commencement has attracted more than 22,000 people.

The University has also been in discussions with officials from RFK Stadium, the Southeast D.C. home of the Washington Nationals.

James Hess, director of University events, has put in a request for an area on the National Mall as well. Hess said the University would be conducting a walk-through of the area by the Smithsonian museums between 3rd and 17th streets in the near future, but loud noises and the high number of people in the area could make the area a logistical challenge.

“We can deal with this,” Freedman said. “We’ve had the benefit of a few months to be thinking about it.”

The University has been working with the Student Association, and Freedman said the University is still open to student suggestions on alternate sites venues, which can be submitted to the SA office. Freedman said he hopes to have a set location by the end of the month.

History of Commencement

For the last 14 years GW has held the Commencement ceremony on the Ellipse after University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg suggested a unified ceremony to take place on the National Mall. Before 1992 GW had only individual ceremonies and no University-wide event.

Many seniors said they are disappointed they will not have an opportunity to graduate on the Ellipse. In 1995 an electrical storm caused the University to move the ceremony indoors, but every other ceremony for the last 14 years has been held on the area next to the White House.

“It certainly makes GW lose all its dreams of grandeur that it likes to portray to the families and everything else,” senior Tyler Herin said. “If we end up graduating in RFK Stadium, it’s just not quite the White House lawn.”

“Not that it’s the biggest deal for me, but GW seems even more pointless now,” Herin added.

Senior Meredith Wolff, the SA’s vice president of community affairs, is optimistic the University will find a “comparable” space to hold this May’s ceremony.

“I wanted to graduate on the Ellipse,” Wolff said. “But now GW has the potential to move us to an even cooler location, on the Mall or some other place that is unique to Washington, D.C.”

-Andrew Breza contributed to this report.

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