CLA students petition for college to explore in-person graduation options

Two students started the petition in hopes that the College of Liberal Arts would offer an in-person graduation ceremony for interested students.

After the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts announced that the 2021 commencement ceremony would be completely virtual, two students started a petition asking that the college gauge student interest for an in-person ceremony and make the option available for eligible graduates.

Fourth-year students Leah Schiffman and Morgan McElroy started the petition after reading Dean John Coleman’s March 11 email to CLA students announcing the virtual commencement ceremony would be held on May 16. The digital petition has garnered nearly 400 signatures as of April 3.

“The dean’s email did not indicate whether or not [CLA] had thought of ways to do an in-person commencement differently,” Schiffman said. “Nothing about this year has been normal, and I was shocked at the lack of creativity and even openness to trying something new.”

Schiffman added that after learning that the Carlson School of Management and departments within the College of Science and Engineering would be hosting in-person events, she wanted to research and propose something that she thought could be safe for CLA.

The Carlson School is tentatively planning to host an in-person commencement ceremony on May 17 at the 3M Arena at Mariucci, with virtual participation also available. Every CSE department will host in-person celebrations for their graduates on May 8, 10, 11 and 12.

“We are not demanding an in-person ceremony as much as we are demanding that data be gathered,” McElroy said. “What we are asking for is the University to look at options, gather data and keep everyone in the loop on it — and that just has not been happening thus far.”

In response to the petition, Sara Danzinger, director of internal communications and media relations in CLA and a member of the college’s commencement committee, reiterated that the college will not be hosting any kind of collegewide in-person commencement ceremony. She added that CLA is working with individual departments that would like to hold smaller, in-person events.

“Although the state’s guidelines and restrictions may change by May 16, we cannot foresee what those changes could be and have to plan for the current situation,” Danzinger said in an email to the Minnesota Daily. “Though we appreciate a virtual ceremony may not be what some students and families hoped for, we are confident that we can provide a meaningful experience.”

CLA’s commencement committee began researching options for in-person and virtual commencement ceremonies several months ago, Danzinger said.

“We collaborated with other colleges on campus as well as possible venues such as Mariucci, TCF Bank Stadium and even the Minnesota State Fair Grandstand,” Danzinger said in the email.

Coleman’s email noted that approximately 2,600 CLA undergraduate and graduate students attend the commencement ceremony in a normal year, with around 20,000 guests in total attending the usual morning and afternoon ceremonies.

In coming up with the petition, Schiffman and McElroy contacted the dean’s office to gather data on how many CLA students were eligible to graduate this spring.

That number is 4,722, according to the petition, meaning that around 55% of eligible graduates would be expected to attend a graduation ceremony. McElroy noted that the ongoing pandemic would likely impact that number and possibly make it lower.

Given TCF Bank Stadium’s capacity of 50,805 attendees, the petition asserts that “[CLA] can safely seat 10,000 individuals” while being compliant with Gov. Tim Walz’s recent allowance of large, outdoor venues to host up to 10,000 people.

TCF was explored as an option, but factors like student safety, the cost of renting the stadium and the unpredictability of Minnesota’s weather in May ultimately ruled out the venue as a possibility, Danzinger said.

“What is allowable as in-person commencement this May does not match up with what many people may be envisioning,” Danzinger said. “Processionals and recessionals, for example, are being strongly discouraged by the state.”

Though the commencement committee had been working on a solution for multiple months, McElroy said that communication between the college and students was lacking.

“There was never any information coming from CLA about what they were trying to do or about what was likely to happen,” McElroy said. “I thought the most realistic approach was that there would be a ceremony with no guests and we would at least be walking across the stage.”