by Matthew Litchfield, Contributing Writer
It would be easy to say that I’m angry about the changes to Commencement 2017 announced last week, but that would be both unfair and too simple a response for such a complex issue.
I first heard about the change over the summer, when Interim Chancellor Helm held a graduation planning meeting that one of my friends attended. Although I’m not thrilled, my feelings have been tempered.
For three months this summer, I worked in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, giving tours of the university to prospective students.
Day in and day out, I would recite the following: “To your right is the amphitheater. It’s the alpha and the omega of your time at the university. When you come in freshman year you go to Convocation, where you’ll listen to the chancellor and the author of your summer reading book speak. Flash forward four years and you’ll have a beautiful outdoor graduation ceremony.”
This vision of graduation rooted itself firmly in my mind. I’m a senior— graduation is right around the corner. The closure, parallelism, and symbolism of the ceremony I imagined was grounded in the idea that the setting is its most defining feature.
I would not, for example, want to have my college graduation ceremony in the same place as my high school ceremony—which is exactly what will happen in May. When I graduated from Norton High School in 2013, our ceremony was held at the Xfinity Center. Hopefully this time we can skip the tropical storm.
Our amphitheater doesn’t just echo sound, but the memories that we recall both privately and out loud. Those memories are amplified not just because of the nature of the ceremony, but because of where it’s held.
Graduation isn’t just about celebrating our success. It’s also about evoking and venerating our memories on hallowed ground—not a nondescript concert venue.
That said, I’m not quite the hopeless romantic I was in high school. I recognize the exigencies that have led to Helm’s decision. The university is a fiscal mess. Paying to set up two graduation ceremonies (rain and shine) over three days when we could have two weather independent ceremonies on the same day is just not financially responsible.
The email announcing the changes made some other good points: a combined graduation will allow students from all the colleges to graduate together, which is great for students who are double majoring and to friends from different disciplines.
It’s also more handicap accessible, which is an issue the university continues to struggle with. Admission’s campus tours can’t take people who need accommodations through some areas of the main quad because it’s just not accessible. I can only imagine the challenges faced by those planning accommodations for graduation.
I’m glad to be graduating with my friends. I’m glad the university can accommodate people better, and that the administration is taking its budget issues seriously.
All the same, I would prefer to graduate on campus. There’s something to be said for walking through campus one last time, together, to celebrate the end of a journey. Not in a far off land (if Mansfield can be so called), but on our own shores.
The issue at the heart of this change to Commencement is a lack of school spirit. While 60% of our students may live on campus, we’re still very much a commuter school. Most people, it seems, go home on the weekends.
The identities of our students aren’t deeply tied to this campus. We don’t call each other Corsairs, because there’s no pride in saying it. Despite outstanding academic programs (notably, Nursing, Engineering, and Visual Arts), we often fail to find a common rallying point.
If I had to describe the culture of the campus in a word, I would say ‘consumerist.’ My professors bemoan how the university has become a ‘degree factory’, and more than a few members of the administration have called me a customer.
The university faces a great challenge that will define its future. What culture will they cultivate here? What point will they rally around? What’s sacred? Will the ground be hallowed by the passage of students, or will we walk the tightrope of the bottom line? These are the questions President Meehan should be asking potential chancellors.
If graduating at the Xfinity Center is the Class of 2017’s burden so that future students might have more memorable ceremonies, so be it. I’m excited to graduate either way.
Lastly, to those that will lead future students: be mindful of the choices you make, because you will create the world in a very concrete way.