Last week, Dean of Students in the College John “Jay” Ellison announced programming changes for closing convocation ceremonies beginning this year with the Class of 2017. Most notably, Saturday’s single diploma ceremony on the quad will be replaced by eight concurrent ceremonies across campus, with students split up by the residence hall they were placed into first year. It would make sense to break up the ceremony to be more manageable for both students and family members stuck sitting in triple digit temperatures, especially with increasing graduating class sizes. But, dividing students based on the location of their first-year house or last-lived-in house is not the right solution and represents a step too far in the administration’s campaign to make College Housing the center of undergraduate life. If the duration of the single diploma ceremony is as problematic as the administration suggests, then the University should go back to the drawing board and find a way to divide graduating fourth-years by academic department or division.
While President Robert Zimmer will “verbally confer the degrees” at a University-wide ceremony in the morning as in past years, he and Dean of the College John Boyer will not be handing out the diplomas themselves, denying many students the opportunity to shake hands and personally meet two figureheads of the University. Ellison promises that these new ceremonies will be more “intimate” than ever before in his University-wide email last week, as students will receive their degrees from their Resident Masters, with whom students are theoretically much closer than Zimmer and Boyer. But some students in satellite dorms didn’t even have a Resident Master and, over the course of three years, many Resident Masters have retired and been replaced, meaning that a chunk of the student body will receive their diploma from a complete stranger.
Also, by organizing the ceremonies around houses, the administration seems to be emphasizing the cultural and social aspects of college life. This is misguided under the current housing system because students do not choose their houses and often distance themselves from their housemates over time, finding their niches in other parts of the University community. Most students appreciate that house culture, as it stands now, offers a strong and fulfilling community for those who choose to embrace it, but, in the end, is a choice. The administration should not start imposing house culture on upperclassmen now, especially after closing satellite dorms. These smaller houses were in many ways the representation of the housing system the administration wants to recreate in large new dorms on campus: They had a long history of traditions and a strong culture that encouraged students to stay past their first or second year. It’s almost hypocritical of the administration to dispose of these houses and then expect students to accept changes to convocation that center around the importance of house culture.
If the ceremony’s length was really the main issue then why not have multiple convocations, but divide students by major and division? It would be more natural to group UChicago students based on academic pursuit than by the rather arbitrary housing assignments they receive in their first year. Convocation should be a celebration of one’s academic accomplishments within a community of scholars with which one has chosen to associate. In response to this proposed solution, the administration states that “holding ceremonies based on units of majors would have produced uneven results, with some relatively small groups and others that would be quite large.” But this answer seems insufficient, and the prospect of clumping students based on division in a balanced way seems far from impossible. Although no solution is immediately clear and convocation by division still raises conflicts regarding double majors and department heads busy with graduate school ceremonies, these logistical challenges don’t seem like insurmountable roadblocks and administrators should be able to put their heads together to address them.
The changes to the convocation ceremony and the University’s complete failure to incorporate student feedback throughout the decision-making process raise the question of whether the University is more concerned with future generations of students than the current graduating class. Given the administration’s push to centralize housing and its initiative to encourage students to stay in the dorms all four years, a convocation divided by residence hall may be welcome down the line, possibly starting with the Class of 2020. But, for now, a large fraction of the current fourth-year class has made clear that it does not identify strongly enough with its current or former residence hall to support the plan. Convocation is a day for graduating students, so the administration should respond to fourth-years’ input by working toward a different plan that has more to do with students’ academic experiences than their social ones.
—The Maroon Editorial Board