As appeared in President Kent Fuchs' monthly column in The Independent Florida Alligator
The Gators are planning to play five football games in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium this fall with 17,000 cheering fans in the stands, and yet there are no in-person graduation ceremonies. The University of Tennessee announced earlier this month in-person commencement ceremonies in November for its spring, summer and fall 2020 graduates.
Does the University of Florida, particularly the president, care more about football revenue than graduating students?
Before COVID-19, I received on average several hundred emails and letters a day. Since COVID-19, my inbox is filled with as many as a thousand messages a day. Among the most common are messages expressing concern about not having in-person graduation ceremonies this past May, August and this coming December — and the seeming contradiction of having fans at football games. Often the messages attribute motives to my decisions involving politics, money or a lack of care for life or graduating students.
UF has an enduring tradition of hosting graduation ceremonies three times a year — Spring, Summer and Fall. We also recognize each graduate by name. Most large universities have fewer ceremonies or don’t individually recognize their graduates. The largest number of students we can accommodate and still have a reasonable length ceremony is 1,000. In a typical year, we have 28 ceremonies distributed across Spring, Summer and Fall. These ceremonies are the absolute best events of the year for students, friends and families, faculty, staff and the administration.
Our venue is the greatest limiting factor in scheduling graduation ceremonies. We have tried several times to have graduation ceremonies in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The problem, year-round, is Florida’s weather, particularly the possibility of rain.
Our last attempt to have a ceremony in the stadium where we individually recognized graduates was the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ ceremony on May 5, 2019. That ceremony was canceled soon after the individual recognitions began due to rain and lightning. That experience was one of the worst in my time at UF. Although CLAS rescheduled the ceremony for later that month in the O’Dome, the response from students and their guests led to our decision not to schedule any more individual recognition ceremonies in a venue not protected from the weather.
In normal times, we continue to have a May all-university commencement ceremony in the stadium, but that ceremony does not have individual recognitions and lasts only an hour, so canceling it due to weather is less traumatic. The additional ceremonies in May, and at all other times, are now indoors, protected from the weather in the O’Connell Center, Phillips Center and University Auditorium.
The University of Tennessee ceremonies this November will host a maximum of 200 students per ceremony, with 12 ceremonies over three days. As expected, masks and social distancing will be required, with a limited number of guests. At UF, it would take 50 ceremonies to accommodate the number of 2020 graduates who traditionally participate in graduation.
The constraint of hosting our individual recognition ceremonies indoors severely limits our ability to host ceremonies safely. About 270 staff and faculty usually work to host each ceremony in the O’Dome, with most working indoors, where transmission is more likely, in the midst of crowds for more than 12 hours per day. The accumulated risk to staff and faculty involved in so many ceremonies over many days, combined with the severe restrictions on students and guests before, during and after the ceremonies, has led us to this alternative: to have in-person ceremonies for everyone once COVID-19 subsides and to also celebrate each student in virtual ceremonies at the time they graduate. We have set aside April 29 - May 2 and May 6 - 9, 2021, for 34 in-person ceremonies — again, assuming COVID-19 has subsided.
For football, and all other sports, we are able to allow our student-athletes to compete and fans to attend if CDC and UF Health guidelines are followed. Rain delays and rescheduling are not as personally traumatic as with graduation recognition ceremonies. Also, we can enforce limits on crowd size without excluding important members of the audience such as grandparents and children. Further, there aren’t repeated games on the same day and over multiple days, as there are with graduation.
I’ve presided over 75 graduation ceremonies since starting at UF. I have missed those ceremonies more than any other events this year. I so much look forward to next year celebrating in-person with every graduate and singing Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” at graduation — and with 90,000 fans at football games in The Swamp.