March 11, 2021

CHANG | Cornell, Have Graduation. Or Cancel it Faster.

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I don’t think we’ll get an in-person graduation. I’m calling it now, maybe even willing to make a couple of bets on it. With only 81 days until Commencement Day, we’ve received no information. Nada. Zilch. Zip. Which shouldn’t be the case.

No one was surprised when the University called commencement events for the Class of 2020 — the first time. I’m not all that sure anybody was overly shocked when the rescheduled commencement for “COVID semester seniors” was indefinitely suspended, either. As an incoming senior at that time, I remember wondering if I, too, would get my commencement cancelled. It’s looking a lot more likely, but it’s even harder to be kept in the dark.

Like many other families who don’t live in the tri-state area, ours had already sketched out how we might attend graduation by the time the COVID-19 pandemic began. My parents were considering a move to Shanghai, China, and we had made an elaborate plan that involved several international flights and three forms of public transportation. Instead of booking hotels, flights and making plans for my last Cornell weekend, I’ve instead listened to the sound of silence.

First, when the Class of 2020 had their commencement cancelled, the Class of 2021 was told to wait. This made sense in mid-2020: Nobody could predict the course of the virus over a year later. Then, in November, President Martha E. Pollack said that we would hear by early 2021. In a February 2021 email, assistant vice president of health and wellbeing, student and campus life Sharon McMullen, wrote that details on the expected format of commencement would come in March 2021. The latest word, on the official commencement website, is that the Office of Commencement Events “hopes” to make a decision in March while noting “it is currently unlikely that we will be able to welcome guests to any in-person celebrations.”

This is a failure of transparency and communication from the administration to faculty, students and parents. We have been given no indication of the planning process. We do not know what factors are being considered. There has been little to no student input or involvement in this process (although with the process as shrouded as it is, perhaps it is only that student involvement is secret). If this school is going to put one last shard into our already shriveled hearts, at least mitigate the pain by telling us ahead of time.

The commencement planning process is oddly the polar opposite of the reopening process. The report from Professor Peter Frazier and his co-authors were released for everyone to read. President Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal detailing their thought process and justification for opening up campus. For graduation? We have nothing. The process may not be of the same magnitude, but it’s still meaningful to a quarter of the undergraduate population. Commencement has not received a quarter of the consideration given to reopening.

I have no problems with an online graduation and I appreciate what I perceive to be the school’s attempt to make something in-person happen. There are models other universities have deemed as safe: Vanderbilt University will host an in-person graduation where each graduate will be able to bring two guests and Princeton University moved up their commencement ceremony to ensure everyone on campus can participate. Sure, Cornell is a lot larger than those schools, but we’ve also put in place rigorous safety and testing protocols to make in-person happen.

I’m not a public health expert by any means. But that is the point — Cornell has public health experts, and certainly has public health and epidemiology experts on the committee of people who decide what happens with commencement. Why not tell us what’s going on?

Commencement weekend is rumored to be one of the greatest for a Cornellian. It is meant to be a celebration of four years of difficulty, struggling on prelim after prelim and snow in the middle of April. For the Class of 2021, we will be celebrating somehow doing one and a half years of school in the middle of a pandemic. We will each have something to personally celebrate.

In light of this, we deserve to know what form our commencement will take.

Darren Chang is a member of the class of 2021 in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is a columnist in the opinion department and can be reached at dchang@cornellsun.com.