Smith Center, not Verizon Center, will be Commencement backup site

The Verizon Center will not be used as a backup site for the 2010 Commencement ceremonies, a University official confirmed last week.

If the University is unable to reserve, is denied a permit, or “extraordinary circumstances” like a thunderstorm make the National Mall unavailable, the ceremony will take place in the Smith Center, said Sarah Baldassaro, assistant vice president for communications. The Smith Center only holds 5,000 people, meaning only the graduating seniors, administrators, speakers and faculty members would be in the building. Family and friends would be able to watch the ceremony from a variety of video viewing sites, Baldassaro said.

Last year’s Commencement attracted 20,000 faculty, staff, graduates and family members.

“The George Washington University Commencement will be held outdoors, rain or shine. However, an alternate site plan is developed should extraordinary circumstances dictate changes,” Baldassaro said. “The University is in the beginning stages of developing a comprehensive alternative site plan to hold Commencement on campus and will evaluate scenarios to hold Commencement in the Smith Center with alternative viewing sites on campus.”

In past years, the University has acknowledged the Smith Center is unable to accommodate all potential guests and scheduled the Verizon Center as the backup location. This year, however, the school has discarded this option as a cost-saving measure and because of the uncertainty of availability should the Washington Capitals, a professional hockey team, make it to the playoffs.

“While it is a cost savings [issue], the primary reason for not using the Verizon Center as an alternate location is to put our effort into one alternate location and the campus alternative was determined to be the best alternative,” Baldassaro said. “Last year, the Washington Capitals’ participation in the playoffs meant that the University needed two alternative sites in case the Verizon Center was unavailable for Commencement.”

Senior Stefanie Einbeinder said she was angered by the use of the Smith Center as a backup location.

“Me and most of my friends have already made plans for our families to come and if they can’t even see us graduate that isn’t fair or right,” Einbeinder said. “Other schools that are bigger have the ability to have everyone watch the seniors graduate, and just because GW is smaller doesn’t mean we should be denied the same privilege. The school at least needs to give us ample notice, and they aren’t even doing that.”

According to Baldassaro, the University plans to notify the GW community “in the coming months,” with the final Commencement details.

This indefinite location may not be enough notice to either change families’ current plans, or to start making them, parents say.

“After paying over $200,000 for tuition, plus giving yearly donations, we expect to be able to see our child graduate from his university. If the school is unable to use the National Mall, it is understandable, but then they need to find another viable option,” Judy and Rick Leigh, parents of senior Joshua Leigh, said in an e-mail. “And they need to tell us about this possibility of changes, because this is the first time we are hearing about it.”

University-wide Commencement will take place on Sunday, May 16 and first lady Michelle Obama is expected to be the keynote speaker.

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