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UC Irvine cancels graduation for first time to protect against coronavirus

UCI graduation ceremony in 2014
UC Irvine graduates celebrate in 2014. The university has canceled its traditional commencement ceremonies for the first time in its 55-year history.
(File Photo / Los Angeles Times)

UC Irvine is canceling its traditional graduation this spring as a precaution against the coronavirus, the first University of California campus to call off the iconic event.

“We are saddened to share that the UCI commencement ceremonies will not take place in the same way as previous years,” Willie Banks Jr., vice chancellor of student affairs, wrote in a message to students Friday.

The cancellation marks the first time in the university’s 55-year history that the joyous capstone to a student’s college journey will not go on in the traditional way. Banks advised families not to make arrangements to go to the campus for the celebrations, which were scheduled for June 12-15.

Nearly 20% of the students at the Irvine campus of nearly 37,000 students are from other countries, predominantly China. The Irvine graduation draws tens of thousands of visitors to the campus from around the nation, if not the world.

The eight other UC undergraduate campuses are expected to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Officials reached Saturday at the Los Angeles, Davis, Merced, San Diego and Santa Cruz campuses said no decision had yet been made about commencement.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom’s directive to cancel gatherings of 250 or more people statewide to slow the spread of the disease would apply to most graduation ceremonies if he extends it past March.

UCI made the decision to cancel the ceremonies because public safety is paramount, spokesman Tom Vasich said Saturday.

“Due to the evolving and rapidly changing pandemic, the health and safety of our community was and is our No. 1 priority,” Vasich said. “While we are extremely saddened to cancel commencement, we did not want to put any of our students, families or communities at risk.”

Banks told students that campus officials are “actively looking at alternatives to celebrate our graduates in an appropriate manner. We understand that commencement is an important part of the UCI experience and we want to honor our students while still keeping our community safe.”

He said the campus would release further details in coming weeks.

Bryce Lindsey, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said that although he won’t be able to participate in formal ceremonies in cap and gown and walk across a stage to receive his diploma, he will celebrate at his own parties with family and friends.

“The most important thing is that they’ll be there and we’ll be able to celebrate,” said Lindsey, who hopes to move on to medical school. “I won’t be able to graduate with my friends who I’ve been with for four years, but I know God has a plan.”

UC Irvine scored a coup in landing then-President Barack Obama as its commencement speaker in 2014 after an unusual lobbying campaign featuring alumni and students signing postcards and appearing in videos.

Colleges and universities across the country have canceled in-person classes and shifted to instruction online to avoid spreading the infectious disease that has afflicted more than 2,900 people in the United States. In California, there were 368 confirmed cases as of Sunday morning, with five deaths.

Campuses also have shut down travel, study-abroad programs, campus visits, athletic events and other large gatherings.

Teresa Watanabe writes for the Los Angeles Times. Daily Pilot staff contributed to this report.

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