National Park Service offers GW Ellipse back for graduation

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 “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.

“Unless there is compelling new evidence that the Ellipse is a better option, we’re moving forward with the Mall,” Hess said. “Unless something comes up in the very near future that surprises us and makes us rethink this, it’s going to the Mall.”

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

“The projects are such that we could lose significant amounts 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 had “huge dirt patches.”

“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 prior to this year.

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.

“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.

William Line, National Park Service spokesman for the National Capital Region, disputed both of Hess’ reasons for not holding the ceremony on the Ellipse.

Line said Hess’ belief that the Ellipse has been left in unusually bad condition by the National Parks Service is “not an accurate assessment.”

“I don’t know what people are looking for in terms of the quality of grass,” Line said. “I think there has to be the realization and the expectation that there are going to be areas that look as though they have been used, but that’s what it is.”

Line also said that Constitution Avenue is not a bus pickup or drop-off location, so it does not make sense that construction along the street would affect GW’s choice for a Commencement site.

“I don’t understand how that would have any bearing on GW’s decision to hold Commencement there or not,” Line said.

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.

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

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