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Commencement at a Crossroads

| Thursday, September 4, 2014

When our University’s administration makes changes that nobody is going to like, they tend to announce them when the students’ minds are elsewhere.

An August football weekend when ND’s newest senior class was occupied with the existentially troublesome series of “last-firsts” was the perfect time for the Office of the Registrar to announce that due to the Campus Crossroads Project, Commencement 2015 is moving indoors to the Purcell Pavilion. This is obviously an inferior venue to Notre Dame Stadium, where the ceremony has been held since 2010.

The Office of the Registrar was careful in its email to frame the move as a “return to tradition,” citing the fact that from 1969 to 2009 Commencement was held in the JACC. The email continues, saying that “the vast majority of Commencement weekend events are open to all guests, and all are welcome to fully participate in the many joyous experiences of the Notre Dame Commencement Weekend.”

Nobody finds this argument persuasive despite its earnest tone. At least in the moment, much of the “pomp and circumstance” that makes graduation what it is occurs during the Commencement speech, the valedictory, and the mass conferral of degrees.

The primary advantage of moving Commencement to the stadium was to do away with the limited ticketing that comes with holding the event in the JACC. As The Observer reported on Friday, the Purcell Pavilion seats 9,149 people. Assuming 2,250 students receive diplomas and about half of the faculty attend the ceremony, there will be less than 7,000 seats for parents and family members – only about three tickets per student.

Serious questions arise when distributing a limited resource that every rational person wants. How should the University distribute the 7,000 tickets? I might argue that whoever becomes valedictorian should have unlimited tickets. Her whole family should be able to see her address the class in a once-in-a-lifetime moment. But what about the 15 or so runners-up who achieve astronomical GPAs and are interviewed for their prowess but aren’t selected as valedictorian?

One might also persuasively argue that children of alumni or kids whose parents have donated great sums of money to the University should receive a greater number of tickets. Their contributions, both tangible and intangible, make this University tick and impart our trademark air of tradition. This surely wouldn’t seem fair to the first-generation college students, students from working class backgrounds, or kids whose parents attended one of America’s 4,000 other colleges.

More concretely, let’s say I manage to get three tickets. Within my own family, who gets to go? My Mom and Dad seem like a lock for the first two tickets. I certainly could not be here without their emotional and financial support. But then what? Do I give my third ticket to my Grandpa Ward who has called me at least once a month since I stepped on campus? Do I give it to my Grandma Mary who pushed me through flashcard after flashcard in Kindergarten and first grade to help me learn how to spell and read? Do I give it to my kid brother Jack to send him a message about the value of work? Or do I give it to my little sister to show her what lies on the other side of an academically up-and-down first year of college?

I hope nobody has to make these decisions, and with a little creativity and the right weather, the University can ensure that we do not have to. I propose two alternative sites, either of which would eliminate or at least mitigate the seating problem and therefore be a better choice than the JACC. Converting these sites over would almost certainly cost more than holding the event inside, but the $400 million construction project which prompted this move indoors would seem to suggest that money is not an issue.

First, we could hold Commencement on South Quad facing the Main Building or O’Shaughnessy Hall. The section of South Quad between the south door of Hurley Hall and the south door of Coleman-Morse is approximately 151,000 square feet (I estimated this with the mobile app MapMyRun). With appropriately-placed bleacher seating and screens, we could graduate on a historic quad within view of the the Golden Dome and, more importantly, within view of all of our families.

I’m even more excited about the prospect of holding the event on Library Quad, where ESPN College GameDay was held two years ago and where the 9/11 Anniversary Mass was held my freshman year. The University could construct a stage over the reflecting pool, leaving 61,000 square feet of empty space to the south for chairs and bleachers. Any concerns about temporary aluminum bleachers looking too rugged for the occasion would quickly dissipate as Fr. Jenkins took the podium in front of of the “Touchdown Jesus” backdrop.

On a 1,250 acre campus, there are almost certainly other solutions I have neither thought of nor listed. I think the Class of 2015 would agree that every additional family member who can be accommodated by moving Commencement outside is an improvement, and well worth a second look by the Office of the Registrar.

In the words of Father Jenkins, “let no one ever say we dreamed too small.”

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About Alex Caton

Alex is a junior political science major living in the caves and ditches of St. Edward's Hall. He has written for the Viewpoint section since spring 2013

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