With weather permitting, Georgia Southern University’s 2016 fall commencement will consist of a single, open-air ceremony, 1 p.m. Friday at Allen E. Paulson Stadium. No tickets are required.
For more than a decade, fall graduations were divided into three ceremonies during one day in the basketball venue, Hanner Fieldhouse. But for at least the past two years, crowds for some of the sessions exceeded the gym’s capacity. Dozens of family members and other guests had to watch video livestreamed to planned overflow areas in other campus buildings.
The move to Paulson is a victory for students who did not accept the university administration’s first solution, which was to hold the ceremonies at Hanner but assign each graduate just four guest tickets.
"The students, I was very proud of them, quite frankly,” said Dr. Teresa Thompson, Georgia Southern’s vice president for student affairs and enrollment management. "They went about it the right way. They got a petition going, they had thousands of names on it, and students and parents were also involved, calling and asking.”
With a goal of 1,500 supporters, the www.change.org petition showed 1,338 by the time petitioners got what they wanted in mid-October. It was directed to Thompson, university President Dr. Jaimie Hebert and Dean of Students Patrice Buckner Jackson.
But what really tipped the scales was when students called on their Student Government Association representatives and the SGA presented a formal proposal, Thompson said.
Spring vs. fall
For many years now, the much larger spring commencements, or at least the bachelor’s degree portion of those, have been held at Paulson. It almost never rains on that May morning, and the stadium holds more than 20,000 people, compared to Hanner’s 3,200-person limit when configured for graduations.
But as Thompson acknowledges, administrators always thought of unpredictable, potentially cold December weather as a bar to holding fall commencement at the stadium.
“What the students proposed is that we're willing to go to the stadium for a football game, and so we're willing to sit out in the cold, we're willing to do this for graduation because we want everyone to have a chance to attend,” Thompson said. “So that was how the decision was made.”
Tickets to Hanner
Another part of the accepted proposal was that the three services at Hanner Fieldhouse, and the four-guest limit, will serve as the backup plan for inclement weather. Just in case, graduating students are being issued their four tickets when they pick up their caps and gowns, Thompson said. Information on the rain plan, if implemented, will be posted on www.georgiasouthern.edu and through news media.
But Thompson has checked long-range weather forecasts, and so far they are favorable, with a 10-20 percent chance of rain and a temperature of about 65 degrees. University officials also checked weather records for the last 10 years and found daytime Dec. 9 temperatures of from 38 to 78 degrees.
By scheduling the event for 1 p.m., the planners hope to take advantage of afternoon warmth. The university may also provide video streaming to an indoor viewing area in case the weather turns out cooler than some guests can tolerate, Thompson said.
Many other universities use a ticket system to limit the number of graduation guests.
"But we had fought that, fought that for years because Georgia Southern truly tries to be a student-centered institution that wants to make the graduation process personal,” Thompson said.
With the university’s eight colleges divided among three graduation times, the lack of a limit on visitors wasn’t a problem until growth in enrollment coincided with increases in the graduation rate.
Georgia Southern’s six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s degree students has risen to 51 percent, which is higher than the national average, Thompson notes. After several years hovering around 20,500 students, the university set a new enrollment record of 20,674 students this fall.
"The academic quality of our student body has continued to increase every year, which means your retention and graduation rates increase, which is a wonderful thing,” she said. “But we do not have an indoor facility that really can accommodate the number of people who want to come to graduation."
Also prompting administrators to insist on a change, about 60 guests came on a rented bus to see one student graduate last year, Thompson said.
“That’s wonderful, except if they've got 60, whose mom and dad may not get in?” she said.
So the university is glad to try the SGA’s proposal, and will work with everyone to see if fall graduation can be done this way in the future, she said.
Graduating seniors voiced their concerns during a Student Government Association coffee hour in October, said SGA President Dylan John. The student government contacted petition signers, received letters from other students, and compiled a report about 35 pages long.
“We had a lot of students who had given us comments, and even some of the graduate students, they had to decide whether to leave either their son or daughter outside, and pick and choose who came to their graduation,” John said.
Within one week of the student government joining the conversation, he said, administrators announced the change.
“I think it goes to show how well Georgia Southern’s administration stays committed to listening to the needs and adapting appropriately to the concerns of students,” he said.
John, 25, actually graduated in May, with a bachelor’s degree in construction management. Now a graduate student, he expects to receive his master’s, also from Georgia Southern, in spring 2018.
But as an international student, John appreciates the value of welcoming multiple family members to graduation, he said. In addition to his father, from Sri Lanka, John had two U.S. host couples from his years as a Rotary Scholar, “four more parents essentially,” attend spring commencement.
About 1,700 students are expected to receive diplomas Friday at Paulson, including roughly 1,300 graduating seniors and 400 graduate students.
With one ceremony, they will share one keynote speaker, Mike Royal, chairman of the Georgia State Board of Education. Royal, an insurance professional, received his Bachelor of Business Administration in finance from Georgia Southern in 1995.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.