Last spring, we were able to gather in person to celebrate our graduating class. The pandemic forced us to do so on Mertz Lawn, between Magill Walk and Mertz Hall, rather than in the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater, where Commencement has traditionally been held. Although we gathered on the lawn for purposes of physical distancing, the location offered a number of benefits that enhanced the experience for our community members. It also highlighted the fact that the Amphitheater is sadly no longer conducive to hosting events of this magnitude in ways that are inclusive and align with our mission. That is why I have decided that we will move Commencement to Mertz Lawn for the 2022 ceremony and continue to explore alternative campus locations for the ceremony in the future.
This was not an easy decision, given our community’s deep affection for the Amphitheater, which is among the most beautiful, serene, and iconic spaces on our campus. It is a breathtaking setting that will continue to serve as the location for significant occasions, such as Last Collection and Baccalaureate.
But the space can no longer accommodate the size of the crowds we host at Commencement. Our graduating classes have grown over the past 20 years, and we’ve had to limit the number of guests students have been permitted to invite to view the ceremony in person. Other family members and friends who have traveled to campus for this milestone moment — some from across the globe — have had to watch a video feed of the ceremony from one of several remote locations around campus. By again moving to Mertz Lawn this spring, we will be able to significantly increase the number of guests who can experience the ceremony in person.
More importantly, the Amphitheater presents significant accessibility challenges, which have prevented some graduating seniors and their guests, as well as faculty and staff members, from participating fully in the ceremony. For instance, graduates who use wheelchairs or those who have certain physical disabilities have been excluded from processing with the rest of their class. Some friends and family members have a difficult time navigating the Amphitheater steps on the way to their seats, which presents real safety concerns. As we learned from last year’s celebration, Mertz Lawn allows us to address these issues in ways that are not possible in the Amphitheater, therefore providing a more inclusive experience for all of our community members.
We also continue to deal with the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. While transmission doesn’t typically occur outdoors, in some instances COVID-19 is believed to have spread at large outdoor gatherings of people who are in very close proximity to each other for extended periods of time. During a typical two-hour Commencement ceremony, the Amphitheater is extremely crowded, with most people seated right next to one another. To be clear, this is not the primary motivation for this decision. However, while conditions around the pandemic continue to improve, COVID-19 remains a consideration that must factor into our planning.
The Amphitheater is and remains a special venue. We are fortunate to have such a magnificent space on campus, and I am committed to using it to the greatest extent possible during the events leading up to Commencement.
I know that some of you will find this news disappointing. I have not made this decision lightly and hope that, even if you disagree, you will view it in the spirit of inclusivity to which we as a community aspire.