Now that we’ve all had a chance to calm down, it’s time for some final thoughts on the commencement debacle.
Here’s a recap of what happened: Administration miraculously forgets commencement can’t be held in football stadium because of construction. Administration remembers. Administration neglects to ask students what they think, announces ceremony will be held at Eastern Michigan University’s Rynearson Stadium. Students get angry – perhaps angrier than they’ve ever been about Iraq, Darfur or plummeting state funding. Students start Facebook groups. Students blog. Students tell parents, grandparents and local media outlets, causing the kind of ruckus that might upset fundraising. Administration notices. Administration does what it should have in the first place and gets students involved by asking them to vote on where ceremony should be held. Students vote for Diag.
By the administration’s own folly, the administration and the student body have stumbled onto a new tradition that may make more sense than the old tradition.
There are some drawbacks to holding commencement on the Diag. For instance, each graduate gets six tickets instead of eight. But all things considered the Diag isn’t merely better than Rynearson Stadium. It might also be better than Michigan Stadium, construction or no construction.
The Big House is a symbol of many of the University’s glories, but it is also a symbol of its sins. I’m probably an above-average sports fan, but I can recognize that the athletic side of the University corrodes the academic side. Too often the University is forced to abandon its values on behalf of the Athletic Department.
There are enough examples of this to fill a book. Here’s one: Erecting luxury boxes on the football stadium takes precedent over making the stadium compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In what other part of the University would a lawsuit be necessary to strong arm the administration into accommodating people with disabilities? Here’s another: The fans in the student section at football games sometimes come together in support of their team, but sometimes they tear into each other with insensitive slurs (mostly homophobic) and even violence. In what other part of the University would this behavior be socially acceptable?
Holding commencement in the Big House gives graduates a false final impression of what this university is about. It’s a dangerous extension of the athletic culture that does some good but a lot more bad.
Changing this symbolism would have tangible effects.
First, fundraising. For many University students, the last memory of their time in Ann Arbor is graduation day. When alumni are about to write a check to the University 20 years from now, we want them to remember Angell Hall, not Michigan Stadium. We want them to endow a professorship in the English department rather than another athletic scholarship. I’ll be the first to point out the value of athletic scholarships, but enough is enough.
This principle holds for the thousands of alumni who come to commencement every year to celebrate their daughters’, grandsons’ and nieces’ accomplishment. Let’s give them the visual clue that the academic side needs their money more than the athletic side.
Second, the local media covers commencement heavily, especially when there’s a prominent speaker like Bill Clinton last year. In the week leading up to the May 1 deadline for high school seniors to commit to colleges, it would be nice to attract the kind of students who are drawn by televised images of the University’s Diag side rather than its Big House side.
There are some good reasons for not holding commencement on the Diag. There’s tradition. But isn’t a university the kind of place where we have an honest debate about the traditions that don’t make sense? And there are logistical concerns.
Maybe commencement on the Diag will be a calamity. Maybe the grandparents in the last row who traveled all the way from New Mexico to see their grandchildren graduate won’t be able to clearly hear every word Bob Woodruff says. Maybe traffic will be so backed up that people in Chicago will be late for work on Monday morning.
If the ceremony goes smoothly, though, the administration needs to start a conversation on campus about whether commencement should be moved back to Michigan Stadium if it’s ready in April 2009. If administrators won’t – and something tells me they probably won’t – students should.
Can you imagine a new tradition in which campus gathers each spring at its academic center – the crowd flanked by academic buildings, the cathedrals of our education – to send a new class out into the world? The symbolism would be thick. The spring air would be warm. The sun would be bright.
Unless it rains, of course.
Karl Stampfl was the Daily’s fall/winter editor in chief in 2007. He can be reached at email@example.com.