Over Garnet weekend, President Valerie Smith and Vice President of Student Affairs Jim Terhune made public for the first time the College’s decision to hold the Swarthmore 2022 commencement ceremony on Mertz Field. This decision represents a stark departure from the long-standing Swarthmore tradition of holding commencement in the amphitheater, a physical representation of Swarthmore’s commitment to a holistic educational environment.
Reasoning behind this change, as given by the administration, is to address attendance limitations and accessibility constraints of an amphitheater ceremony, in addition to COVID-19 social distancing procedures. As a representative of the Swarthmore class of 2022, I am wholeheartedly against the administration’s decision.
A commencement in the amphitheater is so integral to the Swarthmore experience that Swarthmore students today recall the story of the 1983 graduation ceremony held indoors due to rain. In 1983, students refused to receive their diplomas anywhere but on the amphitheater stage by walking out of the auditorium and into the amphitheater before receiving their diplomas. This anecdote, so powerful to the integrity of Swarthmore tradition, is frequently told as part of the campus tours for prospective students. The recent decision of the administration, made with complete disregard for our Quaker roots, has functionally rendered Swarthmore’s tour guides liars.
Uncertainty regarding COVID-19 was cited as part of the reason the administration decided to relocate graduation, but as we are all aware, viral transmission remains low in outdoor settings, especially when participants remain masked. To break this news for the first time at an event to which all Swarthmore parents were invited points directly to the hypocrisy in which the College has indulged. Additionally, to ramp up COVID-related social restrictions for an outdoor event with limited attendees while the college’s current modes of operation, such as indoor dining and allowing spectators at indoor sports games, already contradict these proposed limitations points to a failure on the part of the administration. This failure stems from an ongoing administrative lack of understanding of the appropriate balance between precautions against liability risk and an imperative to uphold tradition and evidence-based considerations in their decision making processes.
The expectation of graduation in the amphitheater is part of a social contract every student agrees upon with the college; we are each equally promised this tradition at our First Collection, a tradition to honor our accomplishment at this unique place. From the beginning of their time at Swarthmore, students envision themselves walking across the amphitheater stage, in front of their peers and professors, to receive their diploma. We should interpret this contract by the strictest of terms afforded to us: a graduation at Swarthmore can only happen in the amphitheater; an event held in any other location is not a graduation at all.
The college made it explicitly clear that the event held last spring for the class of 2021 on Mertz Field was a ceremony, not a formal commencement. While the class of 2021 certainly mourned the loss of a traditional graduation, in defining the 2021 ceremony as a non-commencement, the college left its original social contract intact. This year, by hosting a formal commencement not in the amphitheater, the college is deciding to breach this contract and corrode institutional integrity.
By using justifications of physical accessibility to bolster their argument for hosting commencement on Mertz Field, the administration is engaging in an obvious logical fallacy. Essentially, they are operating under status quo bias by not exploring their full range of options for accessibility improvement; instead, they are reusing their solution to address COVID-19 to solve challenges posed by accessibility issues. Any decision to relocate commencement on the basis of accessibility must remain completely independent from the events of COVID that motivated ceremony relocation in the past.
The college, to truly represent the will of the primary stakeholders of the event — the graduating seniors — should begin by investing in long-term updates to the amphitheater that would sustain the commencement tradition, and in effect the integrity, of Swarthmore College. These structural updates to the amphitheater would serve the College in the long run, and therefore prove to be a better investment than discrete, annual accessibility construction for a stage in Mertz Field once every spring.
If, ultimately, there remain accessibility barriers that necessitate remote viewing, this structure would still be of strictly greater value relative to a ceremony held on Mertz Field. Returning to the event held last spring in lieu of a formal commencement ceremony, most of the observers were only able to watch on the large projectors. A ceremony in the amphitheater, with accessibility accommodation made for participants, is a Pareto improvement — an improvement for all parties — from a ceremony on Mertz Field. Those who can reasonably fit in the amphitheater can view the ceremony live, and those who either cannot or choose not to view the event live can watch remotely in overflow seating, say on Mertz Field or Parrish Beach.
The administration has left us with one final choice if they do not decide to walk back their current decision: as active participants in our own commencement ceremony, we have every right to peacefully disrupt commencement. Just as Swatties have done before us, we can process towards the amphitheater and refuse to collect our diplomas anywhere else but on the stage on which they are meant to be obtained.
My mother probably died because of Swarthmore’s graduation in the amphitheater. We had been told that wheelchair access was not possible, and she strongly wanted to be able to attend in person for my son’s graduation in 2011. So she choose to have four hip surgeries over a few months to try to regain function, and she died of complications from the fourth.
This does not mean I blame Swarthmore in any way. Never did in any way, not even as we saw someone in a wheelchair rolled into the front for my son’s graduation after my mother had died.
Instead, my point is this: there are values higher than sitting in the amphitheater for a few hours. That’s what I took from my own education at Swarthmore.
It was amusing to see how the Class of ’83 washout legend has evolved. As I remember it, it was far more joyful a solution. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but President Fraser led the group of us graduates out of that dreary field house and up the hill, then in his most charming manner symbolically conferred our degrees. After that brief, soggy service, we all traipsed back to the waiting crowd in the field house for the actual distribution of the diplomas. We made it fun, and look, they remember us still.