Changes planned to Commencement starting 2020

Separation of degree-awarding ceremonies under consideration

The administration is planning to change the structure of the 2020 Commencement ceremony, likely in the form of a short ceremony for all students followed by separate degree-awarding ceremonies. The changes aim to address issues such as the lack of space in Killian Court and the extensive length of the ceremony.

Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88 said in an interview with The Tech that there is no final decision yet on what Commencement will look like. The primary idea under consideration is to have a shorter ceremony in Killian Court, called the “One-MIT” ceremony, where all undergraduates and graduate students are invited, and traditions such as the turning of the Brass Rat are performed. Afterwards, shorter and separate “recognition” ceremonies would be held where students’ names would be recognized and degrees awarded.

Barnhart said, “There’s a range [of feasible options for such ceremonies], but they can be categorized into two groups. One is thinking about it at the school or program level.” The other involves bringing “all of the undergrad students in one ceremony, or all of the PhD students together in one ceremony. All of those options are part of the set that we’re considering.”

“The Chancellor’s Office, GSC, and UA have had multiple meetings where we productively discussed, going forward, what Commencement would look like,” UA President Mahi Elango ’20 said in an interview with The Tech.

The UA sent out a survey to all undergraduates Sept. 14 to evaluate what undergraduates value in Commencement. “We shared aggregate anonymous results [from the survey] with the Chancellor’s Office,” Elango said. Survey results will be made public to all undergraduates in the coming days.

Barnhart wrote in an email to The Tech, “In the next couple of days, I will be sending a brief survey to students that will ask them for their preferences on a couple of different recognition ceremony options. Those options will be different for each school but, generally, they will range from a smaller school-based ceremony to a larger all undergraduate and masters ceremony in Killian.

“It’s also possible that students’ answers may help us to identify new configurations that will deliver the best possible experience for our graduates and guests,” Barnhart continued.

The increased number of degree recipients in recent years has strained venue capacity and  extended the length of the Commencement ceremony. As a result, during the past two commencements, many students exited the ceremony while degrees were being handed out, and several guests had to visit the medical tent after sitting in the sun for hours, Barnhart said. Barhart said that the concern about the length of the ceremony was shared by the administration and student leaders.

Barnhart said that the Commencement Committee has been considering these issues over the past couple of years. GSC President Peter Su G was a member of the 2018-19 committee. Su said in an interview with The Tech, “Commencement Committee last year went through a lot of different scenarios of how we could change Commencement… and the scenario that was approved [for recommendation to the administration] was two completely distinct ceremonies: one for undergrads, one for grads.”

Following the 2019 Commencement, the senior administrators and senior faculty met in Academic Council, and decided that the undergraduate-graduate split would not be enough to address concerns such as ceremony length. They decided to explore the idea of the One-MIT ceremony and degree conferral by school or department.

This decision was sent out to the current GSC and UA leadership in an email late summer. However, Su said,“I think they didn’t realize the way they were talking about it implied that it was a final decision. … If this is considered a final decision, students are not going to be happy.”

The UA leadership wrote an op-ed in The Tech Sept. 12 expressing their disappointment with the failures in communication. Following the publication of the article, the Chancellor met with both undergraduate and graduate student leadership. “Not all of the leaders understood the full landscape of what we were actually considering,” Barnhart said, “and so we wanted to make sure they understood that.”

Regarding the future of Commencement, Elango said, “Because we’re on a timeline constraint, … we are making as best of a decision as we can for 2020. But the decision for 2020 is by no means how we’ll do things 2021 and beyond. We will have more and more conversations about how to fine tune it for what’s best for everyone.”

“Whatever decision is made will be one the UA, GSC, and Chancellor’s office agree on as the best for all stakeholders," Elango said.

Su said, “[The GSC’s] role right now is to essentially make sure that whatever ends up being the final result is not something that will hurt graduate students. … It’s always been about keeping as many people as happy as possible.”

Jacob Miske ‘20 said in an interview with The Tech that Commencement “should be catering to the requests of a particular student body which feels contiguous amongst itself, which I believe is either the undergraduates or the graduates but not necessarily a ceremony containing both of them.”

Miske said, “A student in the School of Science and a student in the School of Engineering don’t really think of themselves that different, and they wouldn’t necessarily understand what the purpose behind graduating separately would be.”

Miske added that he would hate to see “the ceremony for the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences to be small compared to the ceremony for the School of Engineering or the School of Science when they matter just as much.”