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Rotunda renovations impact Class of 2015, potentially 2016; future classes to be impacted by increasing student body

Construction fencing will completely surround the Rotunda on all sides beginning May 19, blocking almost all access to the Lawn from the north side.

“I don’t think people really understand how extensive that fence is going to be,” Director of Major Events Pamela Higgins said.

The fence will block off the walkway between Pavilion I and the Rotunda and extend westward, blocking the area between the Rotunda and Brooks Hall.

The renovations will make the traditional procession down the Lawn infeasible and place a roadblock in the middle of the Final Exercises ceremony starting with the Class of 2015.

With the Rotunda out of commission, “our problem is how we get the students onto the other side of the Lawn,” Higgins said.

Pat Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer, said the renovation is a once-in-a-lifetime event that unfortunately coincides with the Class of 2015 graduation. In addition, Lampkin said the increasing number of graduates also poses a problem.

“In 1991, about 12,000 people were
on the Lawn for graduation. We are
closing in on 27,000 to 30,000 people
in that short period of time,” Lampkin said.

“Our numbers are going up, and it will be a problem,” Lampkin said. “In 1991, about 12,000 people were on the Lawn for graduation. We are now closing in on 27,000 to 30,00 people in that short period of time.”

The growing number of graduates, combined with the compressed size of the already-overcrowded Lawn, brought the situation to what Lampkin called “a tipping point.”

Short-term problem

The second phase of the renovations necessitates changes to the Final Exercises for the Class of 2015, and possibly the Class of 2016, Higgins said.

The administration has proposed three options for next year’s graduation ceremony: stay on the Lawn and limit the number of guest tickets to two per graduate, hold two Final Exercises ceremonies on the Lawn, or walk the Lawn en route to Scott Stadium, the site of Final Exercises.

The three options are the only ones being considered, Higgins said. These options are the ones which “the [graduation advisory] committee and the University feel are feasible,” she said.

The three options were detailed in document related to the “A Final Exercises Survey” sent out by University President Teresa Sullivan on April 11 to the classes of 2015, 2016 and 2017, and their parents. The Graduation Advisory Committee, comprised of both undergraduate and graduate students and co-chaired by Higgins and Dean of Students Allen Groves, compiled the survey.

The survey will open April 16 and close April 22. Before they respond, Higgins said students should “consider all of the options and discuss them with their families.”



The first option retains the traditional Final Exercises framework, with all schools graduating on the Lawn together on the same day, and limits the number of guests tickets to two per graduate, with no standing room only area, according to the survey.

This proposal will take more than double the amount of time, with the ceremony lasting an estimated three and a half hours or longer, Higgins said. The extended duration is because of “the very narrow opening” of the alleyways onto the Lawn, she said.

Students of the College, Engineering, Nursing, and Medical Schools all originally processed from the north side of the Rotunda onto the Lawn. These students must now enter onto the Lawn through the alleyways, along with students from all the other schools who have always processed through the alleys.

Where students could once walk 8 to 15 abreast down
the steps on the south side of the Rotunda, only 2-3
can walk abreast through the alleys, slowing the
procession significantly, Higgins said.

Where students could once walk 8 to 15 abreast down the steps on the south side of the Rotunda, only 2-3 can walk abreast through the alleys, slowing the procession significantly, Higgins said.

The standing room area would also be eliminated in this option.

“Only guests with tickets will be able to be on the Lawn if we keep everything the same,” Higgins said.

As all students will now be entering through the alleyways, the former standing room on the Lawn becomes part of the procession, Higgins said.

“From a safety perspective as well, we cannot have standing room only area,” Higgins said. “As the Rotunda steps and the portal between Pavilion II and the Rotunda will be closed off, there will be too few exits to accommodate a standing room only area in the case of an emergency. You don’t want to get people in there who can’t get out.”



The second option proposes two separate Final Exercises on the Lawn, one on Saturday and one on Sunday of Final Exercises weekend. One ceremony would be for the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, while the second would include all other undergraduate, graduate and professional schools.

A similar idea involving two separate ceremonies was once on the table, Higgins said. That proposal split up the graduate and undergraduate ceremonies into two separate events, so as to reduce the overwhelming numbers, Higgins said.

However, Higgins said this solution would not ultimately solve the problem for two reasons. First, the undergraduates account for the largest number of guests, and even a separate undergraduate ceremony would still pose challenges.

Second, many departments and major programs host combined undergraduate and graduate diploma ceremonies. Splitting the Final Exercises would complicate these procedures, perhaps necessitating two separate ceremonies within each major, Higgins said.



The third option includes a procession down the Lawn, which then continues to Scott Stadium for the ceremony. In Scott Stadium, students could have an unlimited number of guest tickets, according to the survey.

The exact route of the procession has not yet been clearly identified, nor the estimated time such a walk would take, Higgins said.

“We have not yet determined what the route would be,” Higgins said. Higgins said she the route might continue down McCormick road, turning onto Engineer’s way — the “shortest route” to the Stadium.

That route is approximately ¾ of a mile.

Higgins reiterated that many of the University’s peer institutions have a similar tradition. “William & Mary does it, Yale does it,” she said.

At the College of William & Mary, students process about ⅔ of a mile from the Wren Building on to William & Mary Hall.

Graduates of Yale University walk from ‘Cross Campus’ to the New Haven Green and then through the Phelps Gate, combined nearly ⅓ of a mile, to their Commencement Exercises.

Comparing the options

Higgins said all three options retain the tradition of “Walking the Lawn,” which the graduation advisory committee identified as very important to students.

Will Laverack, Class of 2015 President and College student, said no option offered an ideal solution.

“With all these options there are problems we are going to have to confront,” Laverack said.

“We want to compromise, but we don’t want to concede,” said College student Blake Griggs, Class of 2015 Vice President.

Despite the changes, Pat Lampkin hoped the ceremony would remain memorable for the Class of 2015.

“We want to make it special,” she said.

Moving forward

Laverack said the survey presents an opportunity for the community to engage in the decision making process.

“A big part of the problem is that people don’t think they have a voice,” Laverack said. “People think the Lawn is off the table.”

The advisory committee, comprised of third-year students and headed by Laverack, met in early March to brainstorm ideas for graduation. The committee has met once since its creation.

“At this point, we are late in the game, and this isn’t happening as ahead of graduation as I’d like it to be,” Griggs said.

“At this point, we are late in the game, and this isn’t
happening as ahead of graduation as I’d like it
to be,” Griggs said.

Class of 2016 and 2017 presidents, Jack Vallar and Abraham Axler, both College students, invited students to a town-hall style meeting Monday evening to address concerns and questions about the process.

Results from the survey will be sent to Sullivan. What weight the survey results will carry in the decision, though, remains unclear.

The advisory committee will not be making the final decision, Higgins said — a task ultimately left to the administration.

The original deadline for the decision was sometime in April, but the date has since been pushed back. Higgins said the exact timeline is not clear.

“I’m hoping it will be made before graduation this year,” she said.

Class of 2016

For the Class of 2016, the 2015 graduation will function as a trial run, said former Class of 2016 president Andrew Kwon, a College student.

“We’ll see what steps [the Class of 2015] takes,” he said. “Our [graduation] can be a build off of what [the Class of 2015’s] is … innovate from their base.”

If construction goes according to schedule, the Rotunda will reopen before Final Exercises in 2016.

If “something unexpected” occurs, Higgins said, such as the heavy snow of this winter, work could be delayed. Higgins called the time between the estimated completion date and 2016 graduation “a slippery window.”

Long-term planning

Whether graduation will continue to be held on the Lawn in the long run seems ambiguous.

Vallar foreshadowed eventual change in an email to the Class of 2016 Friday afternoon, though moving graduation from the Lawn was never explicitly mentioned.

“Over the long term, because of crowd size as well as safety and security issues, changes to the Finals Weekend are inevitable,” he said in the email.

“Over the long term, because of crowd size as well as
safety and security issues, changes to the Finals
Weekend are inevitable,” Vallar said in an email.

Axler sent a similar message was sent to the Class of 2017 via email.

“Knowing that crowd size and safety will sometime in the future bring more change to Finals Weekend, the committee wanted to make this a broader discussion,” Axler wrote.

In a meeting March 5, Associate Provost and Professor Archie Holmes said as long as all graduates from all schools are to graduate together on the same day, the question was not if graduation would have to move from the Lawn, but when.

“I think … if we want to keep it together … it’s inevitable that it is going to have to move at some point,” he said. “When that point is, is unclear.”

Higgins said no decision to eventually move graduation from the Lawn has been made.


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