Speaking at a ceremony launching the 2019-20 academic year, Georgia Southern University President Dr. Kyle Marrero noted that a new plan has been sketched out for the ceremonies that will conclude the year, spring graduation, also known as commencement.
He did not unveil the plan yet, but said a ticket system limiting each graduate’s number of guests will be a necessary part of it. The administration’s goal is to complete the plan by Sept. 1 after a final round of input from student leaders.
“Commencement! My first 90 days were so much fun!” Marrero quipped, introducing the topic with some humor Wednesday during his first State of the University speech on the Statesboro campus.
Following a similar morning ceremony and speech on the Armstrong campus in Savannah, his afternoon remarks in the Performing Arts Center were a big part of fall convocation, attended mainly by Georgia Southern employees.
Consolidation of the former Armstrong State University, with its Savannah main campus and a commuter campus in Hinesville, into Georgia Southern officially took effect Jan. 1, 2018. But separate Armstrong campus and Statesboro campus graduation ceremonies continued in 2018. Then a plan that united the ceremonies without regard to campus locations but separated them instead by subject-area colleges was deployed for spring 2019.
Last May’s plan
With three of Georgia Southern’s colleges – the College of Education, the Waters College of Health Professions and the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health – being headquartered in Savannah and the other five in Statesboro, hundreds of graduating students had to travel between cities to take part in the indoor ceremonies May 10-11. The venues were Hanner Fieldhouse in Statesboro and the Savannah Convention Center.
A university-wide ceremony was also held at Paulson Stadium in Statesboro the morning of Saturday, May 11. It offered a celebrity speaker and mass degree conferrals for each college, but without individual students’ names being called for presentation of diploma covers. That was done only in the college-specific ceremonies.
Developed by a committee of university-level administrators, a few deans and an academic department chair and announced in January, this plan generated considerable controversy before Marrero took office as president April 1. But by then the plan was set, and he saw it carried out less than six weeks later.
Before his arrival, a petition entitled “Move Spring 2019 Graduation to Students’ Home Campus” had been launched on Change.org with a goal of 15,000 signatures. It eventually logged more than 13,500 online “signatures,” but this petition targeted the May ceremonies, now in the past.
In his remarks Wednesday, Marrero observed that spring commencement “has incredible traditions and legacy here,” and also said that the graduation task force deserved praise for its work.
“I want to be positive to the work they did,” he said. “They’re looking at an institution with 4,000 degrees conferred at one time in spring and how do you pull that off. Any other institution this size does it in college ceremonies, and those can be incredible, wonderful ceremonies. So we did our best to pull off nine commencement ceremonies in two cities over 36 hours.”
“Hats off to these people that did that!” Marrero said, and faculty and staff members responded with a round of applause.
But he also acknowledged, again through humor, that the May ceremonies did not receive positive reviews from most of the graduates, family members and others from whom the university sought feedback.
“Twenty-five hundred people were happy to give us their feedback! And most of it was … ,” Marrero said, pausing, “… it was creative,” he said, interrupted by laughter. “And the language …,” he added, garnering more laughter. “It was good.”
The university’s survey of May’s graduating students, their family members, other guests, current students, alumni and faculty and staff members drew 2,011 responses. Marrero also mentioned focus groups and other input from the Student Government Association, or SGA, faculty, staff, alumni and college and university work groups.
The “2,500” comment was his estimate of the number of people heard from by all these methods, GS Director of Communications Jennifer Wise emailed in reply to a follow-up question.
A preliminary summary of the survey results, dated May 31, indicated that 62 percent of respondents had rated their overall graduation experience “poor” while 21 percent rated it “below average.”
Capacity a concern
But most of the comments from those respondents had to do with other issues than whether there should be college-specific ceremonies, campus-based ceremonies or a single ceremony.
The summary indicated that 25.1 percent of comments examined at that time were about connectivity and technology issues and categorized the topic of 21.1 percent of responses as “unknown.” The capacity of venues was identified as a concern of 11.98 percent of dissatisfied respondents, while 6.65 percent had recommended a single ceremony.
A list of recurring themes and discussion points, which Wise provided with the survey report, acknowledged several concerns having to do with specific ceremonies and venues.
“Graduates from the College of Education expressed displeasure with not being able to graduate on the Statesboro Campus in light of Georgia Southern’s legacy of being a Teacher College,” was one of the observations on the list.
“Ticketing and Capacity were mentioned widely, mostly in regards to Hanner (Fieldhouse)” was another of the recurring themes. Another noted complaints about the lack of stadium-type seating in the Savannah venue.
Sept. 1 goal
Marrero didn’t talk about any specific complaints Wednesday, but he said the new plan was conceived with the feedback about the experience in mind. Safety, logistics and the feasibility simply “of pulling this off every single year,” also have to be considered, he said.
“Other than Paulson Stadium, we have nothing in this entire region that seats more than 6,000 people. That’s it,” Marrero said. “Just from a facilities standpoint … we’re sort of boxed in on that. So what we’re really trying to focus in on is the experience, who is it most important to, obviously the students. …”
“We think we have a plan, and it’s being fleshed out and put together,” he said.
Staff members intend to present the plan to the SGA at an Aug. 24 meeting for further student input.
“We feel like the students need one more engagement on this, because it is about them,” Marrero said, noting the Sept. 1 goal for completing the plan.
“One thing I will tell you is absolutely it is going to have to be ticketed. …,” he added. “We can’t just say anyone and everybody just show up, because we can’t promise you can get in, and that’s the worst of experiences.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.