Our family recently gathered for a relative's college commencement, and we all agreed afterward that it was the worst graduation ceremony we'd ever seen. After four years of tuition and hard work, it was a serious letdown to attend an endless program focused on fund-raising from graduates and families who were there for another reason. It certainly left us all wondering about the competence and judgment of its organizers, and spurred us into thinking about the purpose of a graduation ceremony. (Spoiler: we think it’s about celebrating a milestone with students and their families and friends.)
Instead of focusing on the depressing, disorganized and cliché-ridden 2.5-hour self-congratulatory event, we decided to envision the graduation ceremony we would hold if we ran an institution of higher learning -- one that might have left us pumped up, happy to have been associated with the place, and potentially receptive to the appeal for donations that arrived within four hours of the ceremony’s end. Effective fund-raising is about making friends and connections, and a fundamental rule of making friends is to think about the other in the relationship, at least part of the time. Alienating people is never a great way to raise money.
So now, with this year’s ceremonies safely behind us, but before too much planning has started for next year’s, here are our seven easy steps for a great graduation ceremony.
1. Focus on the audience. Let us first stipulate that it wasn’t the college’s fault that it was raining. We did wonder, given that it had been wet for days and the venue was a grass lawn, if the college might have considered a bit of mud-abatement, given that many of the guests were dressed-up elderly ladies. Leaving aside the vicissitudes of big events held outdoors, we didn’t object to the open seating plan, and we didn’t mind showing up hours early to get seats that had a line of sight to the ceremony, as we were advised to do. After all, it’s a day of celebration and our family had gathered for it, so we were all together and visiting.
In our re-imagined event, we would keep the open seating except -- to cover those moments when visiting down the aisle gets hard to maintain in the surrounding din -- we’d display a slide show throughout the open seating period, rotating pictures and names and maybe short quotes from each of the graduates in turn. The seating for our event opened at 7:30 a.m. for a scheduled 10 a.m. ceremony. While that seemed a bit long to us, if that’s your standard, even at five seconds per graduate, you’d have time to show everyone in the graduating class several times over.
Showing all the graduates would give families and friends something to watch and would personalize the ceremony that small bit more. (We understand that large state universities with thousands of graduates couldn’t feasibly do that and must instead muster all the majesty and dignity they can in mass ceremonies. We also know that many large places hold department and college events in addition to the huge main event. We’re focused on the smaller-scale shindigs although much of this could be applied to the college ceremonies at large universities and parts could be applied even to the largest ceremonies.)
2. Personalize every chance you get. A processional signals “event” and can be an emotional starting place for a narrative arc if well staged. Given that we were all on a flat lawn, once everyone stood up to honor the entering graduates, their faces were blocked from the vision of most. If the venue doesn’t provide universal good lines of sight and, as seems pretty standard, you can predict that the audience is going to stand up to honor the graduates as they enter, it seems that there are two requirements for setting and maintaining the tone of a great event: assure some visuals for those who cannot see anything and reinforce the moment with music.
While the graduates are entering, our imagined graduation switches from the earlier multi-media show to a live stream showing the face of each entering graduate. The music should have a strong beat that encapsulates the beginning of a journey, something that either people will recognize or that has a catchy tune. Avoid a brass ensemble playing the same music for the 23rd time in a row.
3. Provide some unexpected touches. Rather than open with the usual rote speech from the presiding official, try having the main graduation speaker welcome the crowd, foreshadow the speech by saying "Welcome, graduates! I’m (name) and I’m looking forward to telling you in a bit about a lesson I learned as a student that helped me get to where I was picked to speak at your graduation. First, here’s your president who’s going to tell our audience about you as a class."
Now the president, instead of holding forth to let you know what’s on his or her mind these days (who really cares at this event?) or demonstrating erudition (ditto), talks a bit about the class: what its demographics were upon entering, maybe a poignant line or two from an admissions essay from someone in the class, some class achievements (prestigious scholarships, hardships overcome, number who studied abroad, next steps such as the range of jobs or grad school choices, cool achievements, quirky things that characterize the group, etc.) and something about what went on in the world during their educational tenure. This would be no more than five minutes or so. It wouldn’t include a fund-raising pitch.
4. Start setting a theme for alumni-hood. This next bit takes some advance work, but if you have a class in the hundreds, it should be doable: as part of the graduation run-up collecting pictures for the opening mosaic of the class, ask students to submit a picture and a few sentences about someone who influenced their education. This can be someone who inspired them to go to college (yours, in preference, in at least one or two cases), a faculty member who was particularly transformative, or something else their creativity provides. Pick a range and the most memorable, and get those students to record a voice over. Put together a video montage with the voiceovers — again aiming for 5 minutes. Play that now. (Even large universities can do this. Cornell University, for instance, has a program with a similar aim that might seed other ideas.)
At the debacle we attended, instead of anything at all about the graduates, we were treated to narcissistic recollections from a range of dignitaries who didn't mean much to anyone, each containing yet another request for donations. Between the empty aphorisms and pleas for money in every set of remarks, we were left wondering to whom the speeches were addressed (it certainly wasn't the graduates, and it certainly wasn't us.) If our programs had contained "cliché bingo" cards, at least it might have been entertaining. By this point, most people were reading on their phones or Kindles, occasionally consulting the program to see how much more they’d have to endure before anything relevant to the audience happened. Some of those around us occupied themselves during this stretch of the program trying to brush the mud off their shoes, which had by now had quite some time to dry.
5. Since it’s not about you, keep it short. Prime the speaker with two key things: 1) the address should be SHORT — 12 minutes, max — and 2) it’s about the audience, not about him or herself. If possible, ask the speaker to outline lessons that have served his or her career and that were rooted in undergrad years or shortly thereafter. (We know, priming really important people can be hard. Many, though, will be grateful if you provide some scaffolding for their talk because constructing just the right speech for a graduation can be daunting.) Provide the speaker with three or four interesting facts about the class or its members.
Our speaker told us that she’d been told to speak about herself. While she thought it absurd, she said modestly, she was surely compliant. She did leave out her shoe size and what she prefers for breakfast, though.
6. Graduate them. It may seem gratuitous to mention this, but especially if you’ve made them show up in advance for a practice (you did, right, including their cues for standing up and sitting down and the routine for walking from the seats to the stage and back again?), and collected phonetic pronunciations of their names, try to get them right. This was underlined at the recent ceremony we attended, when every single graduate we knew (a fair number) suffered a name mangling, including some of the pretty easy ones. It’s a bad sign when there’s laughter at name announcements and it grows as you progress through the alphabet.
7. Finish with a final touch of priming. As each graduate leaves the stage, diploma in hand, give each a flower or some other appropriate token. Instead of a recessional, after the diploma-dispensing is complete, ask the class to stand, locate someone in the audience who helped them achieve this milestone, and say that, as a first step out into the real world, start by giving back: ask each to go to the person, escort that person out of the venue and bestow the small item as a thank you and to start the habit of acknowledging others and giving back. Wish them well and send them out on their new lives.
In the end, we propose that a relevant graduation ceremony reviews the journey the graduates have been on, and anticipates the journey on which they now commence. A coherent narrative, frequent personalization, and respect for the graduates and guests can turn an otherwise formulaic (or worse) event into a memorable celebration. Round it out with sensible logistics, fit it into a reasonable time frame, and voilà, a good graduation. You might even make some friends who later want to donate to your institution.
C.K Gunsalus is a columnist for Inside Higher Ed. She was joined in this piece by family members Kearney T. W. Gunsalus, Brian P. Teague, Jovanna Stanley, Anna Shea W. Gunsalus and Michael W. Walker.
Earlier this month, the federal Departments of Education and Justice reached an agreement with the University of Montana following an investigation into the university’s compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 — an agreement that the agencies have said should serve as a “blueprint” for colleges and universities.
The administrative burden of following this blueprint is so great that it seems as if the federal government has forgotten that universities exist for a purpose other than sheltering 18-to-21-year-olds from offensive speech. Worse still, the federal blueprint defines sexual harassment so broadly that even colleges and universities doing their best to comply will remain at high risk for federal investigation and enforcement actions related to Title IX, and will risk First Amendment lawsuits as well.
The blueprint consists of two key documents: a 31-page findings letter and a 16-page resolution agreement. And while the incidents underlying the Montana investigation involved sexual assault, much of the blueprint focuses not on assault but instead on harassment. The findings letter holds that the University of Montana’s existing definition of sexual harassment is too narrow, and that "sexual harassment should be more broadly defined as 'any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.' " The letter also clarifies that sexual harassment includes "verbal conduct" (read: speech) and need not be "objectively offensive." Rather, speech becomes "sexual harassment" when the listener in question perceives the speech as "unwelcome."
The resolution agreement then identifies more than 40 distinct actions the University of Montana must take in order to be Title IX compliant. (Of course, universities not compliant with Title IX risk losing federal funding.) These actions include:
Developing and carrying out a system for tracking and reviewing reports of sex-based harassment (which, under the government’s definitions, includes any subjectively offensive sexual or gender-related speech).
Ensuring that all university offices (except where confidentiality privileges apply) notify the university’s Title IX coordinator within 24 hours of receiving information about sex-based harassment, regardless of whether a formal complaint was filed.
Ensuring that the educational environment of any student reporting sex-based harassment is free of further harassment (i.e., further subjectively offensive speech).
Conducting annual campus climate surveys for all students, analyzing the results of those surveys within 60 calendar days, and working with a paid equity consultant to develop actions to take in response to the survey results.
Developing a monitoring program to assess the effectiveness of the university’s efforts to address sex-based harassment, conducting an annual assessment of those efforts, and submitting that assessment to the federal government.
That’s just the beginning. And should the university fail to take any of these and other actions in a timely manner, the federal government may take legal action. Universities reading this blueprint should be deeply concerned for several reasons.
First, the administrative burden of following the blueprint is staggering. Indeed, one cannot help wondering — upon reading the document in full — how the federal government expects colleges and universities to have any time or money left over for the pesky task of actually educating their students.
Second, the blueprint requires public universities to choose between the newly mandated definition of sexual harassment and upholding students’ First Amendment rights. While earlier guidance from the Department of Education emphasized the importance of protecting free speech on campus, the words "free speech" and "First Amendment" do not appear anywhere in the blueprint’s 47 pages. While failure to comply with Title IX can lead to a loss of federal funding, public universities will also face legal action for violating students’ free speech rights. As such, this blueprint leaves public universities between a rock and a hard place. Although the Department of Education has since stated (not to colleges and universities, but to those who wrote in to criticize the blueprint) that the blueprint is not intended to interfere with First Amendment rights, this belated lip service to free expression does little to mitigate the blueprint’s impact.
Finally, the blueprint defines sex-based harassment so broadly that even universities making good-faith efforts to comply will still find themselves at high risk for investigation and enforcement actions. For instance, the University of Montana had already undertaken numerous compliance efforts during the course of the federal government’s investigation — steps the government, in its findings letter, deemed inadequate.
If universities want to remain able to fulfill their core missions, it is time for administrators to begin pushing back against the ever-increasing demands of the Education Department. No one disputes the importance of preventing sex discrimination on campus, but doing so need not consume so many resources that it interferes with universities’ ability to carry out their core educational functions, nor can it require universities to violate their students’ First Amendment rights.
Samantha Harris is a lawyer and the director of speech code research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
"Holding Colleges Responsible” is the latest example in a slew of articles – many of them quoting the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – that are meant to alarm anyone with a voice, and the author’s use of selective quotes out of the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights's response to FIRE only fans the flame.
At issue is whether the Education Department’s enforcement of a law and guidance that are designed to promote compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and prevent sexual harassment put free speech at risk. In particular, the recent cause for concern is language in the agreement between OCR, the Department of Justice, and the University of Montana, which the government called a "blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country."
Readers should know that preserving free speech and academic freedom and ensuring an environment free from sexual harassment are not mutually exclusive goals, and OCR has never published guidance or decisions that aim to limit even the most explicitly sexual academic material.
The issue seems to be the department’s acknowledgment that conduct that is not yet severe or pervasive may still constitute sexual harassment. OCR clarified in a letter to FIRE that only severe or pervasive sexual harassment actually violates Title IX. The department’s view requires defining sexual harassment broadly and understanding the difference between an institution’s obligation to educate and proactively problem-solve and the obligation to "bang the gavel."
The Office for Civil Rights's "Dear Colleague" letter from April 4, 2011 is less concerned with gavel-banging and more concerned with how the complainant is treated during the reporting and grievance process. The outcome sought is the elimination of the hostile environment, if one exists, and maintaining a campus climate free from sexual harassment and violence -- not the termination, suspension, or expulsion of each accused individual.
It is not new for an institution to encourage reporting so that it may determine whether the report warrants action. "See something, say something." Surely not every forgotten bag contains explosives, but because citizen bystanders are not experts with bomb-sniffing German Shepherds, we are encouraged to report what we see.
Despite OCR’s recommendation for broad-based training and notification of sex discrimination definitions and procedures, students and employees are not experts in this area, and they are not expected to be equipped to make a final decision about whether actionable sex discrimination exists. That responsibility falls specifically to the Title IX coordinator or designee under the grievance procedures. By encouraging reporting of unwelcome conduct, the coordinator or designee also has the opportunity to spot patterns, which is a requirement of that job.
Imagine that 10 students report similar instances of sexual harassment (unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature) by another student or an employee that, individually, would not rise to the level of a hostile environment. Together, this conduct is a pattern of sexual harassment behavior that may create a hostile environment in a particular classroom, department or residence hall. Certainly, at the least, it warrants a conversation with and training for the accused individual.
The Education Department and higher education administrators are well aware of the First Amendment and academic freedom. Encouraging the campus community to report instances of sexual harassment and leaving the evaluation of such reports to designated experts is appropriate and lawful.
Andrea Stagg is an associate counsel in the State University of New York’s Office of General Counsel. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the State University of New York.