Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Pollard '21: This year’s commencement plans show complete disregard for student perspective

Many of us in the class of 2021 many months ago resigned ourselves to the reality that we will be ending our college careers without many of the experiences we were expecting four years ago. I, for one, still expected to have the opportunity to be recognized by my family, supporters and community at graduation ceremonies — even if those ceremonies were postponed. But President Christina Paxson P’19’s announcement to the community on Jan. 21 was yet another blow for graduating seniors, as it seems that we will not have a proper commencement for either the class of 2021 or the class of 2020 even after the pandemic comes to a close. If Brown hopes to maintain a good relationship with rising alumni in the class of 2021, then it should invest in us properly by postponing our commencement ceremonies instead of giving our class a small fraction of the experience and subsequently washing its hands of us.   

The University’s decision to hold commencement “in-person on May 1 and 2, in accordance with public health protocols” while family and guests attend virtually was certainly not easy to make. But the decision, which was made without soliciting the preferences of students, robs the class of 2021 of any future opportunity to take part in a ceremony that adequately honors this milestone. To be sure, the state of COVID-19 in Rhode Island and throughout the United States remains dismal. Certainly, thousands of people arriving from around the country and the world should not be gathered on the Main Green come May and keeping our community safe is rightfully of paramount importance. But why proceed with any in-person commencement events this May when we could safely gather together at a later date in a year or two? University Spokesperson Brian Clark even acknowledged that “undoubtedly, nearly all students, families, alumni and others would prefer the opportunity for everyone to participate in Brown’s distinctive Commencement and Reunion Weekend in-person, if that were feasible.” And while it is certainly not feasible now, it will probably be feasible in a year or two. 

Understandably, my proposition would present financial and logistic difficulties for recent alumni of the class of 2021, creating inequities in who could afford to partake in the ceremonies. The University would owe its students, at the very least, a financial aid program to cover hotel expenses and airfare that would accompany a return to College Hill for those in need. This would afford everyone the option to attend their own graduation with their families — a choice all of us have been stripped of the agency to make. 

The timing of this announcement on the second day of shopping period allowed the University to proceed with planning this modified commencement knowing the approximate share of the class of 2021 who would be in Providence and therefore able to attend. As such, students were not afforded the opportunity to factor commencement proceedings into their own plans for the semester. A non-negligible share of our class, 11.3 percent, unknowingly signed away their right to share in this special occasion with us by merely opting to study remotely this semester. With Quiet Period well underway, many graduating students who would have wanted to experience this in-person, albeit downsized, graduation ceremony in Providence cannot change their location of study to do so. According to Clark, the timing of this decision means that the University can “focus efforts on planning and executing the most robust, engaging and inclusive Commencement and Reunion experiences possible in this moment for both in-person and virtual components.” While this implies that the timing benefits the University staff who will be working diligently to plan and execute such a novel and unprecedented weekend, it is ironic that students are the ones slighted by it. The University’s announcement stated the hope that “by sharing these plans now, students and families will be able to better prepare for celebrating their incredible accomplishments virtually on Commencement weekend.” In reality, students would have been able to best prepare for the occasion had they known before the semester began. 

Paxson’s suggestion that the timing of this announcement will allow students to plan private celebrations feigns care for the student perspective in how they go about celebrating graduation. To show real care, the University should have included student perspective in the decision-making process at the outset. Class of 2021 representatives were blindsided by the decision, and while representatives from the class of 2020 were notified of their commencement’s cancellation in advance of the announcement, they were not given the opportunity to advise on it. Clark confirmed that “there was no organized process to solicit open feedback from class members.” In other words, this consequential decision was made for us. Back in July, when the results of a student survey by the Undergraduate Council of Students were released, UCS Chair of Campus Life Zane Ruzicka ’23 told The Herald that “if students don’t feel that they played a part in the formation of (health guidelines), they’re not going to buy into the plan or health regulations.” With commencement proceedings willfully refusing to solicit student feedback, I fear that the University is giving the class of 2021 fewer and fewer incentives to buy into the culture of health and safety that is desperately needed to ensure our final months here are safe and productive.

The final sting of Paxson’s announcement was the assurance that you, like all Brown alumni, will have the opportunity to experience the thrill of Commencement many times throughout your lives.” Why would alumni of the class of 2021 want to return for an expensive reunion to live vicariously through younger classmates when the University refused to invest in our experiences to the same extent? Consistently, throughout this past year, the University has not prioritized the needs and voices of its students, such as by ignoring the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on marginalized students. Certainly an inconsiderate graduation decision-making process is not comparable to the University’s disregard for U-FLi students, but both follow a common pattern of undervaluing students’ interests. I would not want to lend my future support to an institution that did not consider and respect my voice as a student on a milestone event that caps off a year already fraught with so many challenges. 

Choosing to compromise on the quality of this year’s commencement proceedings instead of further postponing the events is a poor attempt at giving us a semi-normal ceremony that is actually far from it. Except for those of us who decided to come back to Providence this spring, the class of 2021 can expect online ceremonies similar to last year’s degree conferrals for the class of 2020. While the class of 2020 was also expecting some form of commencement ceremonies this May, these postponed ceremonies have been cancelled. Admittedly, unlike their peers in the class of 2020, this year’s seniors will not have to sit for 10 months with the false hope of delayed ceremonies. But for both classes, it’s frustrating that even with a $5 billion endowment, the CARES Act funding it received and steadily increasing tuition rates even during a pandemic, Brown is not investing in its graduating students and future alumni. 

Beth Pollard ’21 can be reached at beth_pollard@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



Popular



Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2021 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.