Commencement Move Angers Students

Holly Rothbard

Colgate is a school that makes a big deal out of its traditions. They are enumerated and emphasized in the earliest mailings received by prospective students. This year, however, one of these highlighted Colgate traditions will cease: having the Commencement ceremony next to Taylor Lake. The class of 2009 will begin the new tradition of holding Commencement in the Sanford Field House.

Colgate began the outdoor Commencement in 1955 when the previous location of the chapel was outgrown due to expanding class size. The following years held sporadic and irregular patterns of sunshine, extreme heat, rain, sleet and even snow. According to President of the University and Professor of Philosophy and Religion Rebecca Chopp, the past three years have been characterized by rain, wind and cold. While Colgate students may be used to such weather after living in the Chenango Valley for four years, they most likely haven’t sat in it for four straight hours, nor have their families. The letters of complaint received by the President kept on adding up; they weren’t only from students who were disappointed that their school had subjected their families to such uncomfortable conditions, but also from the family members themselves.

“It got to the point where we felt horrible that we were making people sit through such weather,” Chopp said. The Colgate administration decided over the summer that it was time to move Commencement indoors in order to protect and respect the participants and audience.

“What we hope all students will eventually realize is that graduation is not so much about the setting as it is the people around you, the smiling faces you see as you walk across the stage, the cheers you hear when your name is called,” Secretary of the College and Secretary to the Board of Trustees Kim Waldron said.

The senior class was notified of the new commencement location on September 16 by the 2009 Class President, senior Christopher Nulty. Nulty, along with seniors Samantha Gillis and Jaclyn Berger, is a class council member who volunteered to work with the administration on relaying the news to their class. They are also in the process of planning new events for Graduation Weekend that would be outdoors in order to still have Colgate’s campus be a part of the event. The decision and resulting announcement has led to an uproar from not only the senior class, but also a large part of the entire student body. A Facebook group protesting the move indoors already has nearly 550 members and is growing each day. Senior Brian Solis started the group and in its description emphatically states that the administration’s decision is a “travesty.”

“The fact that we can’t have our graduation outside even if the conditions are perfect is absurd,” Solis said. With regard to trying to keep everyone comfortable, Solis stated, “if after four years at Colgate we and our friends, family, etc. can’t figure out how to dress for bad weather, perhaps we shouldn’t be graduating.”

Solis’ group has been joined by current students as well as alumni who have been posting their own horror stories of outdoor graduation as well as demands to know why the decision has to be made now and not three or four days beforehand. Numerous similar questions were posed to Nulty and Waldron when they attended the Student Government Association Senate meeting this past Tuesday to explain the changes to the Commencement ceremony.

According to Chopp and Waldron, the process for setting up Graduation in recent years has been as follows. Two locations are set up for the Commencement Ceremony-Taylor Lake as well as Sanford Field House, the rain location. At 8 a.m. on the morning of the ceremony, state police as well as Professor of Geography and Presidential Scholar Adam Burnett, are consulted about the day’s weather prediction.

“8 a.m. is the latest time we can hear the prediction by in order to finish setting up and working out seating and other arrangements,” Chopp said. “Unfortunately, the early summer Chenango Valley weather is not easily forecast at all. We’ve had it go from lovely and sunny in the morning to sideways rain by the afternoon.”

Communications problems, seating issues and several other factors make it impossible for a last minute move from one location to another to happen. Setting up a tent for everyone to sit under was also considered but was decided to be infeasible because it would be dangerous in bad weather.

“Tents also cut off the line of sight so no one would really be able to see the lake or the rest of campus if there were sitting under one,” Waldron said.

An issue of much contention among students has been the capacity limit of Sanford Field House. Because of the limited seating, each student will receive five tickets for guests. In past years, there has been no need for ticketed seating because the ceremony was outdoors. Students who planned on inviting more than five guests and undergraduates who wanted to attend were very disappointed upon hearing about the seating limit. According to Berger, the graduation committee has been working with ITS on setting up an electronic exchange of tickets so students can give unused ones to those desiring more.

“There is going to be more seating in the Field House than when the Dalai Lama came because there won’t be as much security,” Berger said. Without the strict security enforcements needed for the Dalai Lama, more space will be available for chairs and all the doors won’t have to be closed which will allow for more openness and ventilation in the room. There will also still be overflow locations, just as there have been in previous years so people without seats can go to other areas and watch the ceremony on television.

The Field House will also allow for large television screens and media equipment to be set up so people in the back can see and hear better. Nulty, Gillis and Berger also plan on using the screens to display a slideshow of pictures submitted by the members of the senior class.

“We are going to use the money saved from not having to set up two locations for Commencement to add new aspects to the ceremony,” Nulty said. “Hopefully the slideshow can become a new tradition for future classes to have.”

The graduation committee is hoping to still hold events outside on the campus as well as add new events to the weekend, such as the awards ceremony.

“Commencement is the University’s signature ceremony and we want to make sure it is memorable and meaningful and people remember it for what it is, and not remember it because they were soaked and miserable,” Waldron said. “We have to establish new traditions for new realities and we hope that as the students are crossing the stage they realize that this event isn’t so much about the setting but about the family and friends they have there supporting them.”