Re-Conceptualizing UF’s Graduation Ceremonies

This Summer and Fall I have received and responded to numerous emails, letters, messages and videos, and had meetings with students and others surrounding commencement.

Most people have said they support UF’s commencement ceremonies in the O’Connell Center and are concerned about future changes in the format and venue. An online petition affirms these sentiments.

After the appalling events surrounding the Saturday afternoon commencement in May, I announced UF would re-conceptualize commencement broadly, and that we were seeking input from the community, in addition to creating a President’s Commencement Task Force. I also decided to begin immediate implementation of important changes in preparation for upcoming graduations. We have further committed to evaluating graduations over the next several years, listening to the community and to being open to and considering changes.

I have had the privilege of presiding over 64 graduation ceremonies since starting as UF president in January 2015. The ceremonies have been in the O’Connell Center, the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, aka The Swamp. For most, I have also given the commencement address.

We have several traditions that I particularly appreciate.

First, UF is one of the few universities in the prestigious Association of American Universities which has graduation ceremonies three times a year (August, December and late April or early May). In addition to UF, of the 34 AAU public universities, only four have graduation ceremonies three times a year. Most importantly, UF always provides an opportunity for every student to be individually recognized.

We are committed to continuing these cherished long-time traditions.

Although hundreds of faculty and staff work hard to make every ceremony exceptional, there are several areas in which our ceremonies are lacking.

I have been disappointed since my first ceremony in May 2015 that UF does not provide an opportunity for the entire graduating class to gather together.

One of our most valued attributes is that we are one of the nation’s most comprehensive universities with a wide variety of colleges. Instead of joyously celebrating together, we spread degree candidates from multiple colleges over multiple ceremonies. In May, I presided over 10 ceremonies in the O’Connell Center — three each on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and one on Monday.

I have also been disappointed in how rushed our ceremonies are. This results from trying to bring together all the expected formalities of graduation with individual recognition of each graduate. Ceremonies in the O’Connell Center need to be confined to two hours when three ceremonies are scheduled per day. Thus, we are constantly pressed for time and everyone is rushed, including speakers, musicians and graduates.

By adding a new all-university ceremony and keeping the individual recognition tradition, we will create a new opportunity for our entire campus to celebrate together in The Swamp and enhance individual recognition ceremonies.

Our new model mirrors how most AAU universities celebrate graduation, including the current top five public universities — the University of Michigan; University of California, Berkeley; the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the University of Virginia and UCLA.

Most of the input I have received asks for students to be individually recognized in the O’Connell Center. We will work to schedule the O’Connell Center for as many student recognition ceremonies as possible. In fact, 75 percent of those graduating in December will be individually recognized there, with the remainder in more intimate settings.

Although some students will have their recognition ceremonies on Friday or Sunday, we will maximize the number who can attend the all-university ceremony and their individual recognition ceremony on Saturday. This will reduce the need for family members and guests to stay overnight.

We are committed to constantly evaluating and improving our graduation ceremonies. The President’s Commencement Task Force will have an important impact on the individual recognition ceremonies, which are currently being planned as well as our all-university ceremony.

I look forward to UF celebrating every graduating student with their guests, families, faculty and classmates in the college ceremonies. I also look forward to seeing all our graduating students process into The Swamp led by their college’s dean, hearing the UF School of Music choir and band perform for the first time in many years and listening to distinguished speakers at graduation. 

I expect a new commencement tradition will begin when graduates sing, for the last time as students in The Swamp, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”