commencement changes (graphic)

Students and faculty are speaking out against changes to commencement ceremonies announced this year at the University of Montana. The changes include ending the more intimate departmental ceremonies in favor of two indoor campus-wide ceremonies.

Faculty petitioned against these changes, which were announced by former Interim President Sheila Stearns on Jan. 12 in the afternoon of her last day on the job.

The changes, which have been finalized, include:

  • Moving the central ceremony into the Adams Center.
  • Having a morning ceremony and an afternoon ceremony, one including the College of Humanities and Sciences and Missoula College, and the other with everyone else.
  • Creating a December ceremony for mid-year graduates.
  • Each graduate will walk the stage and shake the president’s hand.
  • Speeches will be shortened.
  • Departmental ceremonies will not be funded, though events or open houses are encouraged.

While these changes are anticipated to save the University money, students and faculty across campus have voiced concerns, particularly regarding the elimination of smaller departmental ceremonies.

UM senior Kat Cowley, a student senator serving on the University’s commencement committee, said she has heard from more students on this issue than anything else since she became a senator last year. She said students are upset about the elimination of the departmental ceremonies. Losing the opportunity to celebrate their achievements with the peers and professors they have grown close to left students wondering why the announcement came without warning, she said.

The announcement was buried in a link within an email Stearns sent on her last day. Cowley said that if people had seen it right away, something could have changed, but as students and faculty take notice now, it is too late.

Though the memo from Stearns was part of her recommendations to campus, Cowley said changes to commencement are finalized at least for this year.

“It’s happening. This is the reality. But I think people just feel like they weren’t informed, which seems like an ongoing theme,” Cowley said.

Faculty aren’t happy with the changes either. Karen Kaufmann, a dance professor who led a petition within the College of Visual and Performing Arts against the commencement changes, said she came across the announcement on accident.

“I just happened to be looking at the president’s website when I came across it,” Kaufmann said. “I felt a little shocked because I hadn’t heard any discussion about it at all.”

Though the memo released by Stearns said incoming President Seth Bodnar agreed with the changes recommended, Kaufmann said the change “doesn’t gel” with Bodnar’s vision for campus. She said his focus on celebrating student achievement contradicted the plan of eliminating the departmental ceremonies.

Kaufmann sent a letter to Bodnar asking him to reconsider in late January and gathered 26 additional faculty signatures from her college for a petition sent Feb. 1. She said she agrees the central ceremonies could use tweaking, but the departmental ones are important for celebrating student success.

Rebecca Power, assistant to the president and co-chair of the commencement committee, said Stearns was inspired by ceremonies at other schools in the region, including Montana State University. She said the goal of having a central ceremony with increased focus on individual students is to raise a sense of campus-wide community.

About 1,000 students skipped out on the central ceremony in years past, registrar and committee co-chair Joe Hickman said. He said students were less likely to show up because they would rather sleep in and then go to the departmental ceremonies where they actually received their diploma.

Power also said the changes could lower the price tag by tens of thousands of dollars. Commencement costs, including funding for departmental ceremonies, hovered around $90,000 over the last few years. The money comes from the Registrar’s Office, Hickman said.

He said the four-sided video board in the Adams Center will display a picture and name of each student as they walk across the stage, allowing for good viewing opportunities no matter where friends and families of graduates are sitting.