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USC cancels May in-person graduation. What about UCLA and other colleges?

UCLA graduation
UCLA may hold a virtual graduation ceremony in June and traditional in-person gatherings in the next academic year.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

USC has joined a growing list of colleges and universities across the county, including UCLA, that are canceling or postponing in-person graduation ceremonies in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The university has decided that in-person commencement exercises will not be able to take place this May,” a USC website statement said Friday. “However, we know how important an in-person commencement is to our seniors, their families and the USC community.”

USC will confer degrees virtually in May and “remains committed to having an in-person celebration” on campus when traveling and large group events are safe.

“Firm plans for the on-campus events will not be solidified until more is known about the advance of the pandemic,” the statement said.

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The USC announcement comes after UCLA Chancellor Gene Block walked back his earlier decision to cancel traditional graduation ceremonies and apologized to students for not consulting with them first.

He pledged to work with student leaders to jointly plan an alternative course for graduation ceremonies, which he had announced Wednesday would be celebrated only online in June. That news shocked and devastated many seniors, who said they felt robbed of the chance to celebrate the iconic rite of passage with classmates, family and friends.

Within 24 hours, Block changed course.

“In these unprecedented times, we are guided by our goal of protecting the safety of our Bruin community,” Block said in a message to the campus community Thursday. “But we should have known the impact this decision would make, especially during this tense time, and we should have listened first. For this, I apologize.”

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Some colleges have announced they would cancel traditional ceremonies, while others have said they planned to postpone them.

California State University announced this week that all 23 campuses will postpone ceremonies and reschedule them, probably later this calendar year. Stanford University said it did not expect to hold traditional ceremonies but has not yet specified plans.

At UCLA, news of the planned cancellation prompted students to begin circulating at least three petitions urging campus officials to postpone, rather than cancel, traditional ceremonies. More than 20,000 people had signed them as of Friday.

In their petition, UCLA student government leaders said they believed safety was paramount and understood the difficult circumstances faced by universities. “However, we believe that by postponing graduation, UCLA can continue to prioritize safety while still preserving this milestone event for ourselves, families, and the general community,”’ the petition said.

Petition supporters spoke of how much traditional ceremonies — walking across a stage in cap and gown to receive their hard-earned diplomas — would mean to them and their families.

“As someone who was raised by a single mom that is First-Gen, I’ve dreamed of this moment,” said one signer, Nadine Guzman-Lopez. “My mom & the village that raised me deserve to see me walk. We’ve contributed to this school, we’ve sacrificed, we’ve worked endlessly. Please give us the moment we deserve on that stage.”

Another student, Sarah Bae, posted that she had been expelled from high school, earned her high school equivalency degree and attended three community colleges before making it to UCLA.

“For many like myself, the day DOES define the journey,” she wrote. “By making commencement and graduation ceremonies virtual, UCLA is taking away all the hard work we put in throughout these years.”

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UCLA has sent seniors, who will be graduating during the university’s centennial anniversary year, a survey asking them their choice of three options: a virtual ceremony only, a virtual ceremony in June plus an in-person graduation sometime during the next academic year, or a virtual ceremony in June and a traditional one specifically in spring 2021.

Robert Blake Watson, president of the UCLA undergraduate students association, said he was startled and devastated when he saw the Tweet about graduation because campus administrators had not consulted with student leaders at all. They contacted officials who immediately apologized and began plans to survey students, Watson said.

Block, in his message, said his initial decision was a hard lesson learned.

“We are committed to giving all of our students the commencement they deserve,” Block said in his message. “We should have known the tremendous impact that this decision would have on our students and their loved ones and friends. We will do better to include these important voices going forward.”


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