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Susan Wente, standing at center on the top step, said she would not agree to a formal ceremony at Wake Forest unless it was done “the right way.”

Wake Forest University

Several college presidents who were hired and took office shortly before or during the COVID-19 pandemic found themselves weighing the optics and practicality of holding inauguration ceremonies. At a time when faculty and staff members were worried about their health and that of their loved ones, students were losing their jobs and dropping out, and people were dying across the country, the presidents were forced to ask themselves whether the ceremonies were essential.

Many decided the usual pomp and circumstance that mark such events were inappropriate for the moment—but still meaningful enough to postpone, not cancel, for a later date. Now months and even a couple of years later, presidential inaugurations, like delayed commencement ceremonies, are in full swing.

Inauguration ceremonies “could be seen in a narrow way—that it’s really about the individual,” said Lori Varlotta, president of California Lutheran University, whose inauguration took place in February, 17 months after her official start in September 2020. “But it’s important to keep certain ceremonies alive in spirit. Inaugural ceremonies do signal all kinds of important things to the academic community and to the regional community.”

Still, her inauguration was a scaled-down event held outdoors, similar to how classes were held when the campus reopened in a hybrid form.

“The inauguration as an extension of all the innovations that Cal Lutheran put in—it only made sense to have this be a signal of what kind of community we could be,” she said. “There was a deliberate coherence, a visual congruence.”

Thom Chesney took the same approach with his inauguration as president of Clarke University, a Catholic institution in Iowa. His weeklong inauguration-related ceremonies, dubbed One Clarke, One Community Week, include a day of arts and crafts, storytelling, and a movie screening for young members of the Dubuque, Iowa, Boys & Girls Club; volunteer opportunities; and an outdoor festival and block party on campus. The celebration comes more than three years after he was named president in February 2019, and more than 33 months after he took office later that year.

“The running joke here is, ‘Is this an inauguration or an exit interview?’” he said.

Chesney said he was mindful of perceptions, on and off campus, of inaugurations as ego boosters for credentialed leaders. Some people also view the ceremonies as ostentatious events meant to impress donors, alumni, parents and students considering applying—and not those already enrolled.

“I’m not someone who likes things to be about me,” Chesney said. “I’m in the mix with everyone else, one for all, all for one. This would be about what an inauguration means in the context of the university’s life.”

His long-postponed formal installment “would emphasize community, that Clarke is a community university,” he said.

College and universities administrators also prioritized other communal gatherings for the return of in-person graduation ceremonies, homecoming events and other student- or alumni-centered traditions.

“I think inaugurations and installations are part of the culture of a university in terms of a shared governance,” said Susan Wente, who took over as president of Wake Forest University in North Carolina in July 2021. She was inaugurated late last month after having urged the university to postpone its original plans for last October.

A dark-haired woman in academic cap and gown at a podium with "California Lutheran University" on the front. The president of the university, a woman with dark hair, is seated to her left.

“It’s where a president’s values and priorities are shared in a significant way and to significant number of people,” Wente continued. Her ceremony and speech were attended by faculty members and campus administrators, as well as students and alumni, some of them from classes dating back to the 1940s. “There are very few things that bring all these people together, all those stakeholders, and it’s important to impart the vision and the values you’re sharing with them. It was very special to me. I felt the warmth and the welcome from the Wake Forest community.”

Occidental College in Los Angeles held its ceremony for President Harry Elam last weekend, 21 months after he took office in July 2020.

Misericordia University in Pennsylvania had its inauguration for Daniel Myers on April 22, nine months after his appointment in July 2021. University of Utah president Taylor Randall was inaugurated last month; he started in August 2021. Grinnell College, a private liberal arts institution in Iowa, will inaugurate Anne Harris in early May, nearly two years after she began serving as president in July 2020.

In several cases, inauguration plans were disrupted late in the planning process because of waves of COVID-19 infections that closed campuses, sent students home for virtual learning and postponed major events, including graduations. Some of the presidents who delayed their inaugurations made it clear that while their celebrations were not as much a priority as rescheduled, postponed graduations, both types of events have value for their universities.

Elam noted that his inauguration was the first time many of the students had seen or heard him speak in person, and alternatively, it was an opportunity for him to get to know the first- and second-year students who had spent little or no time on campus.

He joked that students who attended the inauguration ceremony probably wondered, “‘Who is this guy?’ It was a chance for the audience to get a better sense of this president, but also a greater sense of this community—where is it going, where are we going, that sense of belief in it.”

Varlotta took office at Cal Lutheran, a private institution in Southern California, just one semester after the pandemic was declared, and it immediately shut down Cal Lutheran and much of the state. She oversaw the shift to virtual learning and, when the campus reopened, to holding classes outdoors. Tents constructed on campus and equipped for hybrid classes later became the foundation for her largely informal, greatly scaled-down outdoor inauguration.

“We wanted to get all the use we could out of the tents,” Varlotta said. Just as important, she said, was the message the decision sent.

“The inauguration was not primarily about welcoming a new leader but to celebrate the beginning of a new era,” she said. “Students, faculty, activities, community, health and wellness—we could internalize the notion that this is not to celebrate one person. It’s to celebrate the community.”

Varlotta even considered canceling the ceremony outright.

“We had sent out ‘hold the date’ notes,” she said. “The board wanted me to do a face-to-face and wanted to welcome me to the community. I said to them, ‘That would not be prudent.’”

Being away from campus during the shutdowns affected the way she envisioned doing her job, especially at a smaller institution with just 2,500 students that prized its ties to the area and region. She ultimately decided that holding an inauguration ceremony “was a key priority.”

“I know what these ceremonies could signal, because let’s face it, it was very hard to build relationships when I first got here. We were cheated out of the opportunity to build relationships the way that we usually do.”

Elam said administrators considered canceling the ceremony “at several points” but decided that it was a crucial next step for the institution.

“It was never about just the president—it was about the university and the new chapter it was undergoing,” he said. “It was for the community to celebrate the joy of making it through to here. It’s an event that’s a ritual, but the symbolism and the meaning of it run potentially deeper. Things matter a bit more; you think about things a lot more. People had experienced things they hadn’t before.”

Other presidents noted that inaugurations also serve an important purpose for delivering messages about the value and direction of their individual institutions.

They had to be done “at the right time, in the right place and in the right way,” Wente said, adding that if another wave of COVID had swept through this semester, “I would not have felt hesitant in delaying it again—or coming up with another alternative.”

Chesney, the Clarke University president, did his best to emphasize an alternative way for the campus, “a first-name-basis institution,” to celebrate. He made it clear he wanted an informal ceremony open to everyone.

“No regalia, open seating, casual dress—the entire focus of our event will be on the campus and our community,” he said.

He also invited nearby residents to walk in, no tickets or invitations required.

“We were sending students home to learn remotely. Then to say, ‘Let’s do this inauguration thing now’—it was so not right.”

He calls it an “un-nauguration.” The extra months of learning the job, he said, were “something I took notes to myself on that I will use now. We didn’t need that even to remind us of who we are as a community, what it means to be here now and what it will mean moving forward.”

Inaugurations are usually held early in a new presidency “and they can only be aspirational, a look forward,” he said. “I have the benefit of looking back. It’s a bonus in a kind of way—not one I would recommend.”

Wente said the delay helped her plan for Wake Forest as well: “It’s kind of a silver lining. I have a much more mature assessment of where we stand, and I’m surrounded by more of a team that I know so much better.”

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