The University of Massachusetts Lowell announced that it will conduct a virtual commencement for the graduating Class of 2020 amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and statewide stay-at-home advisory, a move that triggered backlash including an online petition which garnered thousands of signatures.
UMass Lowell’s Chancellor, Jacqueline Moloney, made the announcement to the campus community on April 22, in a 40-second long video message posted online.
“I know this is not the spring semester any of you wanted or planned,” Moloney stated in her address. “We’re disappointed too that we won’t gather together at the Tsongas Center in May to congratulate you in person.”
“But we are committed to conferring your degrees in a virtual ceremony and recognizing and celebrating your hard work and remarkable achievements,” she added. “I look forward to sharing this special day with all of you, and in the near future welcoming you back to campus as our newest alumni.”
The virtual commencement is slated for May 29, with an on-campus celebration to be held at a currently unspecified later date. UMass Lowell said details are still being finalized, but it will directly update graduates when further information is available and that it is working with the Class of 2020 to plan the timing and format of the future in-person event.
Nevertheless, over 5,000 individuals have so far signed and circulated a petition on Change.org calling for Moloney to rescind the decision to host a virtual commencement at the end of May.
“We as a class feel that this is not a sufficient recognition of our achievements as students, and demand Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney to rescind this decision,” the petition stated.
“For many of us, we are far from family and friends while quarantined, and celebrating this achievement alone is cheating us out of the closure and recognition we’ve earned. We’ve put in the time, the effort, the dedication, and most certainly the money for this to be an unacceptable decision.”
The petition further stated that due to differing financial situations among students and their families, some may not have access to WiFi or devices to livestream the ceremony.
“While we recognize that returning to campus for a postponed graduation may be inaccessible to some students, we feel that we should have a choice between a virtual or postponed ceremony,” the petition also read.
In a following update, the petition’s author, Kat Claybaugh, wrote about a phone call with the chancellor of UMass Lowell in response to the announcement’s opposition.
Claybaugh explained that Moloney clarified several points including greater accessibility to the virtual ceremony through laptop provision and low-cost WiFi and mailing caps, gowns, stoles and cords to students who have moved away from campus since the pandemic began with the ability for students to opt-in to such measures. Claybaugh wrote that there was a “good chance” the University will cover the cost of these graduation items as well.
As for an in-person ceremony, Claybaugh wrote that there was a low likelihood of a ceremony in the fall with the potential for a ceremony to occur in the spring of 2021. She added that Moloney did not want to provide “false hope or false promises” to students and that this has been a large concern for the chancellor.
Claybaugh also wrote that “regarding the choice to do a virtual ceremony in May, [Moloney] wanted to provide closure for students, as well as a mode through which to convey the diplomas to us. She has recognized that while this is not the same as the in-person ceremony, there have been students who have asked for something in May to mark the occasion.”
The two also discussed potential steps mentioned by the Class of 2020 online such as walking with the Class of 2021 in a year’s time or dividing commencement by college at UMass Lowell, in order to reduce the number of people in the Tsongas Arena at once to better enforce social distancing. Claybaugh wrote that UMass Lowell will “continue to sort through what is feasible.”
The University of Massachusetts system, including UMass Lowell, UMass Amherst, UMass Dartmouth, UMass Boston and the UMass Medical School in Worcester, graduates over 17,000 student each year according to information from the 2019 commencement. This year about 6,000 students were set to take part in UMass Amherst’s commencement.
UMass Amherst has also announced a virtual celebration for the Class of 2020 set to take place on Friday, May 8.
UMass Amherst stated, “This online event on the day that commencement would have occurred is not a substitute for an on-campus celebration, which will still take place sometime after restrictions on large gatherings are lifted.”
At UMass Boston, interim Chancellor Katherine Newman wrote in an address to the campus community on April 22, “I’m delighted to announce a bright bit of news in the midst of what has been a gray time for us all: Our campus has decided to honor the 2020 graduating class with a formal, in-person commencement celebration.”
Newman explained that UMass Boston originally intended to host ceremonies on May 28 and 29 but the ceremonies will be delayed until public health authorities allow for large gatherings.
“In the meantime, all 2020 graduates will receive their diplomas in the mail this summer as a ‘down payment’ on the celebration of this tremendous achievement,” Newman added. “This decision was based on a campus survey in which an overwhelming majority (90 percent) of 1,000 respondents (more than 900 from the 2020 class) chose this option over a remote version held during the original dates.”
As of the publication of this article, UMass Dartmouth, has stated “Ceremonies scheduled for May 2020 have been postponed. We are exploring all options to ensure that we send our graduating students off with the recognition they deserve.”
The undergraduate commencement ceremony scheduled at UMass Dartmouth was supposed to be May 8, while the law and graduate student commencement ceremonies were scheduled for May 11.
Chris McLaughlin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @ChrisMcLJournal.