Graduating from college is a big deal. It is a big deal not just for the graduate but also for the person’s family, friends and supporters. In such a context, it is understandable that students might want to celebrate the moment when the degree is conferred.
But as a recent incident at the University of Florida reminds us, what students want and what administrators want are usually two different things. The footage of the white University of Florida professor literally wrestling black graduates off the stage because they had the temerity to cap their achievement with a few dance steps is dismaying. It’s all the more so as it follows hard on the heels of a racist incident at Colorado State when white fears prompted the removal of Native visitors from an admissions tour, not to mention any number of other recent events and revelations that suggest that historically and presently, American universities often function as incubators of white supremacy.
The specifics of the Florida graduation incident also register in the context of how universities relate to their students and alumni. Graduation is called “commencement” because it represents the beginning of something rather than the end of it. Graduation is when students become alumni. Especially in the current climate of radical defunding of state universities, commencement as the beginning of a life as an alumni donor is increasingly important to the survival of many higher education institutions. At my own university, commencement always includes a welcome from our president to the family of Clemson University alumni, and a more or less implicit promise that if you look after the Clemson family, the Clemson family will look after you.
This imagined metamorphosis from student tuition payers to alumni donors -- and student debtors -- is not even the weirdest aspect of graduation. The graduations I have observed go something like this: Because of the structure needed to deliver the right diploma to the right person, the graduating students are lined up in alphabetical order by, usually by major and then move in procession across the stage to where they receive their diplomas and a handshake from the president of the institution; they are then ushered back to their seats. In most cases, that will be the first and only contact an undergraduate will have with the president of their university. As students walk across the stage, their families wait for the single relevant moment in a ceremony that can stretch out for hours to cheer their graduate from far-off bleachers. Meanwhile, the faculty members who worked with students to help make this moment happen are quite often visibly bored in their role of providing a suitably august backdrop to the presidential handshake in their regalia.
These traditions vary from university to university, but a common focus seems to be on connecting the individual graduate to the university at large through a handshake with the president in an effort to cultivate a relationship with the alum as a donor.
It is a bad system. The mass commencement ceremony is a ritual that should be replaced by celebrations focused on students, not the university. The effort to connect new alumni to their university makes it difficult for them to celebrate with fellow graduates, unless their majors are the same and the last names are similar. The scale of these ceremonies, with so many graduates and only one president, means they take place in venues usually used for basketball or football games. This scale makes it difficult for students to connect with families before or after the ceremony. It also makes it hard for faculty members who might want to congratulate students and connect with them.
In general, the necessary size of commencement ceremonies at public and large private universities often prohibits graduates from sharing such an important moment with the people who helped them reach this goal. In that respect, performing a few dance steps while exiting the stage seems like an entirely natural response to the boredom this kind of ceremony engenders.
If we celebrate at worship, at home, or on the playing field in culturally diverse ways, we might expect that universities could find room on the presidential stage for diverse ways of celebrating graduation as part of their commitment to multiculturalism. Or not. The most immediate reform I’d suggest is to allow students more space to celebrate and to keep people who act like the University of Florida marshal far away from the proceedings.
More generally, though, students and faculty members should find ways to reclaim this moment of accomplishment from development officers and other administrators. At Clemson and elsewhere, students have developed community graduation ceremonies, including donning of the Kente, and Lavender Graduation. These are events that allow students of color and LGBTQ students, respectively, the chance to celebrate their achievements with the communities that sustained them. In this vein, great numbers of celebrations and even degree conferrals at the departmental level would be more meaningful for graduates because it would allow them to celebrate with the classmates, family members and professors, instead of waiting to shake hands with someone they’ve probably never personally met.
In the English department at Clemson, my colleagues Erin Goss and Angela Naimou have started a tradition whereby graduating seniors who are part of the English honorary Sigma Tau Delta receive a book that a faculty member picks out for them. Depending on the number of majors, and the willingness of faculty, these kinds of celebrations could be expanded to offer a more meaningful experience for graduating seniors. If nothing else, they could offer a deeper and more meaningful connection to an institution than sitting for hours in a basketball arena, waiting to hear your name called. If college presidents want, they could certainly continue to offer parting remarks to graduating students, but uncoupling this ceremony from delivering degrees would be better for everyone.
This is a moment for the University of Florida to reflect on the roots of the graduation ceremony violence that it experienced and how to prevent it in the future. At the same time, the particulars of this incident suggest an opportunity for many other universities to re-imagine this rite of passage as something that celebrates students rather than an institution.