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Opinion: Students deserve in-person commencement

Jacob Adams

Like so many events scheduled this spring, commencements have been postponed or replaced all together. Some school districts and universities throughout Michigan opted for virtual or drive-thru-type commencements, but is this an appropriate way to recognize graduates?

In the wake of COVID-19, Oakland University shut its doors and sent students home, for our safety and well-being. This left many Oakland graduates curious about how commencement would work. OU’s president, Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, announced on March 20 (in a video release) that commencement would be postponed to August, noting that the health and safety of participants was the top concern. In her words, “[W]e will have those ceremonies over the weekend of August 27th through August 29th at the O’rena just like we ordinarily do.”

Many of us assumed this meant commencement, though delayed, would be normal. But there’s now good reason to believe that it will be a shell of its former pomp and circumstance. 

A May 1 email to graduating students included a Google forms survey asking for opinions on commencement. Would we prefer a virtual slideshow commencement? Or an option to attend fall Commencement in December 2020 (pending CDC recommendations, of course)? 

Shortly after, Pescovtiz was on CNN with John King, saying, "[W]e deferred our commencement this spring. And we’re looking at how we can do that in a novel experience. So we’re looking to do that this August, for example, through a drive-thru kind of experience where they can be on campus but in their cars.”

In short, Oakland University revealed that ceremonies, should they take place, will be far from normal.

Like so many events scheduled this spring, commencements have been postponed, or replaced all together, Adams writes.

I don’t want to downplay the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, but these options are insufficient. OU has dealt with outbreaks in the past and been just fine. According to OU’s student paper, the Oakland Post, on March 11, with different epidemics (SARS and H1N1 noted) the ceremony went ahead. All that changed was that the president did not shake hands with graduates. In light of this precedent, in-person commencement should go ahead in August, or sometime in 2020 with precautions.

University officials were initially reluctant to address this issue, as several attempts to reach OU’s administration yielded generic responses stating no information would be available until June 1, because OU is monitoring all executive orders, and information from the CDC.

Commencements, whether for high school seniors, or bachelors, masters or Ph.D.s, are an important form of closure to students’ years of investment, commitment and hard work. The idea of sitting in cars in a crowded parking lot to honor these accomplishments is unacceptable. That’s why I created a petition on change.org at the beginning of May.

It’s unclear why university officials are making these decisions now and not waiting until the August commencement dates are closer. And there are other options than the few they have offered. Oakland could break the colleges and departments into smaller groups, or move commencement from inside the O’rena to outside at Meadow Brook Amphitheater (where Oakland previously hosted commencements).

In short, there are more suitable and memorable ways of proceeding with commencement. Oakland should look into these; otherwise, this will be just another moment taken by COVID-19.

Jacob Adams is a member of Oakland University’s class of 2020 receiving his master's degree.