Last week, administrators reaffirmed their plans to hold commencement ceremonies for the graduating Class of 2021 in an all-virtual format.
The cancellation of the full in-person ceremony on the National Mall for graduating seniors was not unexpected, and, as the editorial board wrote when the decision was first made in October, it was the right call. But the facts on the ground are different now. Amid rising vaccination rates and declining case rates, almost every other major university in the District has announced plans to hold some form of an in-person celebration. Considering how undeniably important commencement is, officials should consider at least some safe form of a scaled-back, in-person ceremony, or set of ceremonies, between now and the full, yet-to-be-scheduled commencement.
Right now, students justifiably feel cheated out of a real send-off. After all, American, Howard and Georgetown universities have all announced plans to hold in-person graduation ceremonies next month. Georgetown even plans to hold its commencement at Nationals Park – a reasonably iconic D.C. landmark with plenty of space for social distancing. Some of these decisions were announced at about the same time as GW made the final determination in favor of a fully virtual ceremony, which leaves students to wonder why other schools are able to pull it off safely but GW is not.
Granted, GW faces challenges that these other schools do not. As administrators noted, GW’s graduating class is larger than other D.C.-area schools by thousands of students. The University’s usual graduation venue, the National Mall, is operating under National Park Service COVID-19 pandemic protocols that limit in-person gatherings to 2,000 people at most – which is about one-fifth of the approximately 10,000 members of the Class of 2021. So obviously, holding a normal and completely in-person Commencement identical to previous years was never an option and remains out of the question. That being said, the fact that three other schools in the area managed to find a way to achieve some measure of in-person celebration for at least some students reflects poorly on GW’s planning.
Administrators’ communication with the student body has also left a lot to be desired. Some of the frustration and pain felt by the 2021 graduating class upon hearing the news could have been headed off by more fulsome and transparent communication. There is a widespread sentiment among students that administrators are aloof at best and disinterested at worst when it comes to student concerns – and hearing little on the subject of Commencement aside from two press releases while other schools are announcing in-person events certainly does not help. The lack of transparency on the decision-making process also leaves students no assurance that administrators considered options for smaller, in-person events at alternate venues like other D.C. schools did. If it were clear that officials explored similar options and ultimately decided that it would be unsafe, then at least GW students could find some solace in knowing that officials made the effort.
If at all possible, administrators should emulate the procedures undertaken by American, Howard or Georgetown universities to create some in-person facsimile of graduation. Commencement is not just a luxury – it’s the moment when students can look at themselves after four years of hard work and say “I did it.” For students who are the first in their family to attend college or who faced obstacles in getting to this point, the event is all the more significant. Of course, if the pandemic means that not even modified in-person alternatives can take place, then that is fully valid. But administrators should at least be caught trying, and that is something they have not conclusively demonstrated at this point.
In potentially emulating other schools’ planned commencements, administrators could consider a few options. For example, holding multiple smaller, in-person ceremonies for each department or school during the summer could be a good way to provide at least something for students while not running afoul of restrictions on gatherings. Although this year’s Commencement cannot be held on the National Mall, students can and should have the option to celebrate their degree in some capacity in the near-future. A vaccination mandate could also be explored for attending the ceremony, and so can limiting the number of guests each student can bring, which is a step both Howard and Georgetown universities have taken. There might be students from each class who might not be able to attend the event in person for various reasons, but students who are able to participate in the in-person ceremony should have the option. This would allow them to have some capstone experience as they wait for a full ceremony in the future.
Administrators need to prioritize students’ needs and desires, especially when it comes to a decision that is so crucial to the student experience. Students are promised a graduation ceremony on the National Mall when they commit to GW as seniors in high school, and officials should show their work in trying to make that happen. At the very least, they should attempt to hold a ceremony in some capacity. Given the improving public health situation in the District and other schools’ decision to hold scaled-back in-person events, administration should not have been so quick to deny students the opportunity to celebrate the end of their four years at GW. The lack of student voice in the factoring of this decision is just the latest in a long line of actions that shun student opinion.
Administrators are right to look for the safest option in light of the pandemic, but their process to come to that decision seemed rushed and does not consider the ramifications it has on the student experience. In comparison to Georgetown and American universities’ plans, administrators took the path that was most convenient for themselves. On top of this, because GW’s planning process was not transparent, we don’t have a clear understanding of the rationale behind an all-virtual commencement. If University President Thomas LeBlanc and the administration want to temper calls for his resignation, the University must take student voices into consideration.
The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by opinions editor Andrew Sugrue and contributing opinions editor Shreeya Aranake, based on discussions with culture editor Anna Boone, contributing sports editor Nuria Diaz, design editor Grace Miller and copy editor Jaden DiMauro.