Failures in transparency and student input regarding changes to 2020 Commencement

The changes to Commencement were implemented without sufficient consideration of undergraduates’ opinions

This spring, in a drastic departure from past tradition, MIT students will not receive their degrees together in an Institute-wide degree conferral ceremony. This sudden change came as a shock to the Undergraduate Association and class councils, and upon further review, it is clear that the process of making this decision has not been consistent with MIT’s values of transparency and informed decision-making. 

The administration failed to collect feedback from current students and communicate with class councils. In addition, Commencement Committee representatives from last academic year were not aware of the status of this decision, and they reported to us that this proposal was only briefly mentioned in the context of many other draft proposals without being discussed in detail or finalized. We are extremely disappointed with these failures in communication and consultation with the undergraduate population, both at the level of the Commencement Committee and the broader student body.

The new vision for Commencement — dubbed “One-MIT+Schools” — begins with a 90-minute ceremony on the Friday morning of Commencement week, open to all students (undergraduate and graduate) and their guests and filled with MIT traditions such as speeches and the turning of the brass rat. This “One-MIT” ceremony would be followed by school- or department-specific ceremonies on Friday afternoon, during which the actual degrees would be conferred. 

The “One-MIT+Schools” format mitigates several noteworthy concerns: long ceremonies, students leaving upon receiving diplomas, limited space, unpredictable extreme weather, limitations on number of guests, and more. We recognize that these concerns have negatively affected students’ and guests’ experiences for the last several years, and that any desired solution should address these concerns. 

However, the “One-MIT+Schools” format also introduces new issues, which we have voiced repeatedly to Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, Executive Officer for Commencement Gayle Gallagher, and others over several emails, one phone call, and one in-person meeting throughout the summer and early fall.

Our criticisms are:

  1. We are moving away from MIT tradition (walking, hearing your name announced, and receiving your diploma in person in front of your entire class) towards those of peer institutions without sufficient input from the current student body.

  2. Due to the simultaneous conferral of degrees in separate schools/departments, graduates would no longer be able to see and celebrate the graduation of their peers, and double and joint-major students (which make up about 15 percent of the undergraduate population) would be forced to choose between schools/departments.

  3. The financial and logistical difficulties of degree conferral may simply fall disproportionately on particular schools/departments due to the vastly uneven distribution of students and resources among majors. 

A few weeks after we were first informed, and despite our pushback to continue the conversation, Barnhart clarified that the proposal was not actually still under consideration, and that MIT is definitely moving forward with the “One-MIT+Schools” format for the Class of 2020’s Commencement. 

We were repeatedly expected to accept the decision as final and to focus on the exact implementation details of “One-MIT+Schools,” such as whether degrees will be conferred by schools or individual departments. 

Some of the objections we raised may be impossible to avoid and this may well be the most viable restructuring of Commencement. However, it is impossible for the administration to have confidently arrived at that conclusion given that, from beginning to end, current undergraduates were excluded from meetings, ignored on issues, and not solicited for feedback.

The failure to collect feedback from current class years and communicate with Class Councils represents a fundamental incompatibility with our understanding of which stakeholders should be included in these discussions. In addition, the fact that prior Commencement Committee representatives reported that they did not participate in a thorough discussion or finalization process for this proposal demonstrates, at best, a lack of internal clarity that does not meet the standards we expect of institutional proceedings, and, at worst, intentional deceit. 

Especially given the context of other recent changes that have been made unilaterally, such as the characteristics and purpose of the New Vassar dorm, the permanent elimination of mutual selection, and the now-retracted changes to the dining plan — which we hope will serve as a model for the reevaluation of major changes to student experience in light of open lines of communication and student feedback — we are dismayed by the lack of student input in this process. 

In that light, elected student leaders from across campus will be soliciting feedback on these changes from current undergraduates within the next week. In keeping with our principle of transparent communication, a full dossier of materials related to this process, such as the proposal, timeline of events, the problem space, and potential solutions, is available. 

We are committed to working with the administration, both on developing a plan for Commencement that reflects our mutual goals and priorities, and on investigating the failures in communication and implementation — including our own — leading up to this point. 

Writing on behalf of UA Council (comprised of all dorm presidents, IFC, Panhel), the 2020 Class Council, 2021 Class Council, and 2022 Class Council, we feel it is our duty to open a gateway of comprehensive, thorough, and direct communication about this change that should have been open long since. 

Mahi Elango ’20 is president of the Undergraduate Association. She currently sits on the Commencement Committee. 

Charlotte Minsky ’20 is the chief of staff of the Undergraduate Association.