Editorial: Improving the college commencement

Courtesy of UCR Today
Courtesy of UCR Today

What is college all about? Of course there’s the preparation for entering society as a full-fledged adult. That’s what taking classes and doing research is for: Eventually, you become an expert in your area of study and are ready to contribute back to the world.

There’s also the more personal aspect. You’re at college to get to know new people and make friends. You learn about different cultures and expose yourself to different ways of life, and in so doing, take the best parts of what you learn with you. By the end of your college career, you’ve not only become more worldly (which can help when you’re contributing back to the world) but learn more about yourself in the process.

These dual achievements are what college is for. And as such, it’s what commencement is all about — or should be about. Recently, it seems like commencements have strayed a lot further away from their purpose of celebrating a major milestone in students’ professional and personal lives. One need to look only at the petition to force Bill Maher to withdraw from his commencement address at UC Berkeley after making incendiary remarks. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, it’s become readily apparent that a commencement address has mutated into something much different.

Instead of celebrating the formation of friendships and tightening of bonds, it’s divided a community with countless accomplishments to be proud of. Students have questioned UC Berkeley’s administration for inviting Maher, and the administration has itself cleaved in its support. The student body is of two minds: A counter-petition has now surfaced asking Maher to stay. The result is that a virulent back-and-forth over free speech versus hate speech has overshadowed what is supposed to be a celebratory occasion for students and all who have supported them. Maher has said that the only reason he will withdraw is to prevent a “media circus” — but hasn’t that already happened?

Whether Maher stays or goes is between him and the students of UC Berkeley. But it is emblematic, even if it is a particularly heated example, of what commencement ceremonies all too often are. Instead of celebrating students, the commencement ends up focusing more on the speaker than the students, with the speakers patting themselves on the back for giving such an amazing speech. Students, whether divided by ideology or more physically segregated from the friends they have gained in college and worked with for years, are shunted into chairs alongside individuals they hardly know. And after paying through the nose for tuition, selling an arm for a parking permit and a leg for a set of books, the last hurrah is marked by, well, mark-ups on caps, tassels and gowns.

Commencement is certainly not all that bad, and many students are just as thrilled to attend their commencement as their parents are to watch. But as with anything, it can be improved upon. And for graduating students with uncertain job prospects, cost is the first thing that comes to mind. After what feels like years of being nickeled and dimed by the bookstore, parking tickets, renters and who knows what else, the last thing students want to see is another pricetag — and this time for something supposed to celebrate their successes. UCR provides soon-to-be graduates with coupons providing discounts on caps and gowns. But surely it wouldn’t be a bridge too far to cover the cost entirely? The price shouldn’t be too exorbitant. If UCR isn’t willing to cover the cost by itself, partnerships with local vendors or donations from the community could help. Highlanders are third in the nation in community service and actively give back to not just UCR but the Inland Empire in countless ways. Given the School of Medicine’s impressively successful accreditation effort due mostly to community donations, something similar could be achieved when it comes to commencement.

The way that UCR arranges its commencements could use some tweaks as well. Although we appreciate the current format of delineating ceremonies by college, this often leaves many students graduating without the friends they know. Students don’t just make friends in the classroom — through involvement in clubs, hanging out in the HUB or simply visiting the recreation center, we meet many a different stripe of person, frequently with different majors.

Obviously, coordinating several ceremonies is a massive undertaking, and destroying the current system of college-based commencements would only make that worse. But instead of breaking down the large colleges of CHASS and CNAS by major, another option is to allow students to graduate with the people they want. A sort of priority system is a possibility, where students wanting to graduate together can select a preferred date for their graduation ceremony. It may not guarantee a graduation together, but it’s something worth looking into to improve the chances of a happy ending.

There’s also the matter of the speaker. It’s no easy task to arrange for a Steve Jobs or Barack Obama to speak at commencement. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily impossible. But speaker search committees should place a renewed focus on drawing in unique speakers with the possibility to excite students. Entrepreneurs or politicians are fine — but expand the search criteria to include popular musicians, actors and others well-known among students. To that end, the committee in charge of finding speakers needs to be more accessible to students than ever. Students are already involved in speaker selection, but gathering more student input via polls or a public forum could be beneficial.

Maher has certainly brought the spotlight to Berkeley. But all too often there is no spotlight on commencement at all. UCR can help change that by implementing student-friendly changes that inspire students to go to their commencement and enjoy it. After all, who would want their final impression of college to be an impersonal and expensive one?


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