WEB UPDATE: Ellipse back on the table for Commencement, but GW wary of relocating from Mall

Posted Monday, Feb. 27, 5:20 p.m. The National Park Service has made the Ellipse available again for Commencement 2006 due to delays in planned renovations, but the University will probably stick with its plan to hold the ceremony on the Mall due to “real logistical difficulties.”

Jim Hess, executive director of University Events, said that a few weeks ago the National Park Service informed GW that renovations to the Ellipse, which would have taken place at the same time as Commencement, have been postponed.

But due to construction in the area that will still take place, and the poor quality of the Ellipse’s turf, the University is “unlikely” to move the ceremony back to the Ellipse and will probably keep the ceremony on the Mall, where it has been slated to be since November. Hess said a final decision will probably be made within a week.

“The bottom line is that it’s not the same Ellipse that has been made available in past,” Hess said of the area in front of the White House where GW has held its annual graduate ceremony before this year.

“We’ve been kind of thinking through this and making sure that whichever way we go, we’re doing the right thing,” Hess added.

He said the Ellipse itself will not be facing renovations during Commencement, but spaces surrounding it will be begin to see construction starting March 1. Those areas will still be affected on Commencement day, May 21.

“The projects are such that we could lose significant amount of space, if not all of the space, along Constitution Avenue for our bus drops and pickups,” Hess said.

He said sidewalks in the area will be torn up and replaced, and areas with construction equipment will be fenced off, among other impediments.

Hess also said that when University officials recently visited the Ellipse, they saw that it was in “horrible condition” and featured “huge dirt patches.”

“The way the condition of the Ellipse is right now, managing that situation if we had a few days of rain would be a lot more difficult,” Hess said.

He suggested that the National Park Service may not have spent as much time maintaining the turf following recent events as it usually does because it had not anticipated the possibility of hosting Commencement this year. In September, the National Park Service informed The Hatchet and subsequently GW that the Ellipse would be unavailable due to the installation of an irrigation system at that time.

William Line, National Park Service spokesman for the National Capital Region, could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

“We could end up in a situation, if we were to go back to the Ellipse, in which the graduates and their guests would be very inconvenienced by some of the things we have to deal with,” Hess said, citing concerns about traffic and the flow of the crowd.

Planning for Commencement on the Mall has been going well, Hess said, and the school has been working closely with the National Park Service and the D.C. government to plan the event’s layout and staging. Commencement will take place on the Mall between 4th and 7th streets. Former President George Bush and his wife Barbara are the scheduled keynote speakers.

Hess added that the University has made several visits to the planned Commencement site on the Mall, but since learning of the availability of the Ellipse, plans have remained “in a holding pattern for a couple of weeks.”

“The bottom line is we want the best Commencement possible for the graduates and the families,” Hess said. “We’ve really tired to take the time to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

On Monday afternoon, the Office of Grad Life sent an e-mail to graduate students informing them that the Ellipse is available for Commencement. The e-mail contained a link to a survey asking students if they would prefer Commencement to be held on the Ellipse or on the Mall. But by about 4 p.m., the survey was replaced with a note reading:

“Although the National Park Service did recently offer GW the option of returning to the Ellipse for this May’s Commencement, it turns out construction will be underway in areas surrounding the Ellipse during that time. This construction poses significant logistical problems for use of the Ellipse as a Commencement site. As a result, the Ellipse is most likely not a viable option and the survey that was previously sent is not necessary.

“We apologize for the confusion.”

Hess said he thinks students will understand why the University will probably not hold Commencement on the Ellipse, even though it is available.

Hess said, “My feeling is that people will understand that we are making the decision based on what we feel is going to make Commencement the best possible event.”

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