Poor planning causes tension at commencement ceremony

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On Sunday, May 22, a class of 525 students were to walk across the stage at Holton Academic Quad during DePauw University's 172nd commencement ceremony.  

Due to weather complications, the ceremony was temporarily delayed, but resumed shortly after. The humidity was relatively high and the temperature mild – a typical Indiana summer's day by all reckoning.  

The 2011 Walker Cup recipient and former student body president Christine Walker delivered her address, expressing nostalgia for Disney tunes and Easy Mac and remembering historic milestones including the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.  

Tim Solso, chairman and CEO of Cummins, Inc., and a 1969 graduate of DePauw, delivered the keynote address on the potential of the graduating class to affect positive change in the world and the necessity of an unwavering commitment to do so.  

After the distribution of honorary degrees came the dispensing of diplomas, first to students in the School of Music, and then to the rest of the undergraduates, in alphabetical order.  

About halfway through names beginning with the letter "B," the ceremony halted abruptly and students moved to Meharry Hall to receive their diplomas. Family members and other guests in attendance scattered to duplexes, dorms, fraternity houses and the Hub to wait out the storm and the arrival of their graduates.  

A painful memory  

While students still received their diplomas, Executive Assistant to the President Betsy Demmings said she understood that the ceremony itself was what some students were looking forward to.  

"We were just so upset," she said. "Some of these families, they've come from so far and they've waited so long for this day."  

Patrick McMullen was one such graduate. The first in his family to go to college, his family members had come from across Indiana to see him walk across the stage.  

McMullen explained that his education at DePauw was a significant investment for his entire family, not just his parents. Extended family members did everything from providing financial support to automotive repairs. The graduation ceremony, as McMullen saw it, was a chance for his whole family to see their investment pay off. 

"For us – my mom, my dad, my stepmom, my aunt and uncle and my other aunt – it's not like they're rich people," he said. "They were just really excited to see me graduate."

Beyond traveling across the state, parents travelled from across the country or traversed oceans to make the date – from Seattle to Washington D.C., and from Ethiopia to India to China.  

DePauw, in an effort to "ease the pain" as a result of the halted ceremony, distributed DVD's of the commencement in Meharry to students' families, but McMullen says the free DVD doesn't necessarily compensate for the disappointment, or even the travel expenses for many families.  

What went wrong?  

Many thought the sudden change in events occurred due to a lack of preparation on behalf of the administration. Demmings said it was not due to the fact that there was no plan, but that the plan in place was simply an unfortunate one.   

"A lot of people thought we weren't prepared, but we were prepared," she  said. "We just hadn't used that plan to know that it wasn't acceptable. When we had to implement it, it was a disaster."  

Demmings said the temporary delay was intended to wait out a small series of minor storms, which cleared after a short time. The weather looked clear for the next two hours, giving enough time for the ceremony to proceed as scheduled.  

"It all boils down to watching the radar," Demmings said. "When we stepped off, there was absolutely nothing on the radar. We felt good that we'd be able to get in the ceremony."   

Pop-up thunderstorms appeared shortly after the ceremony began, but it wasn't until lightning and hail were reported in the nearby cities of Putnamville and Brazil that the ceremony was taken into Meharry.  

"Outdoor ceremonies in Indiana can never be fully guaranteed," Demmings said. "We want people to have pleasant happy memories, but at the end of the day we had to deal with people's safety. I don't think we did as good a job communicating it from the platform as we should have. We're doing what we can to make sure that never happens."  

There were two indoor locations to be utilized in case of inclement weather. One was the gymnasium of the Lilly Center with enough seating for faculty, graduates and up to five attendants per graduate.  

While Meharry Hall in East College would not seat family and friends for the ceremony, it was closer to the quad, providing a nearby shelter in the case of sudden potentially dangerous weather.  

While having the ceremony in the Lilly Center from the start was one option, Demmings said that many enjoy the outdoor ceremony and would have been similarly disappointed if the ceremony had taken place in that facility.

"We just don't have a good facility for an indoor commencement," she said. "It's hard to go inside when it's light and sunny outside."   

In addition to being less aesthetically appealing than Academic Quad, the Lilly Center would have less space and some students, like McMullen, would only be able to bring in five of their family members. McMullen, however, had planned for that and he received extra tickets from friends bringing fewer than five family members.   

Demmings said that safety was the first and foremost consideration and that the administration is working to find new ways to ensure safety without compromising the ceremony.  

"To say we weren't satisfied would be an understatement of the year," Demmings said.  

Preventative measures

According to Demmings, meetings between relevant administrators will begin soon after they arrive on campus. A number of alternatives are being discussed to prevent a repeat of last spring's commencement.  

One such potential measure is to move the ceremony to an earlier time of the day. In addition to providing more flexibility for temporary delays or relocations as a result of rain, an earlier ceremony would alleviate problems with heat. While moving the ceremony inside permanently is one option, it's one Demmings hopes to avoid considering the lack of an ideal facility.  

Other options being considered include "tweaking" the actual schedule of commencement, but specifics would be decided and announced at a later date.  

Demmings said that two years ago concerns arose that attendees might suffer from heat stroke as temperatures rose and the ceremony wore on.   

The student body President and Vice President, seniors Charles Pierre and Nic Flores, plan on participating in and facilitating other discussions along with members of student government upon their return to campus as well to ensure that other plans are in place.  

"We definitely have that on our priority list," Pierre said. "I'm a senior. I understand that it's frustrating for all students and all parents."  

Demmings said that even now, there are a number of ideas to improve the ability of the university to respond.   

"You can figure lots of things out after the fact," she said. "We just went with the plan that was in place, not knowing it would be such a disappointment to so many people."