For several years now, attendance at Georgia Southern University’s fall commencement has overflowed Hanner Fieldhouse, and friends and relatives shut out of the gym have been invited to watch on a screen at the Russell Union. This year, a second remote viewing site was needed for the largest of the three ceremonies, all held Dec. 11.
One thing Georgia Southern hasn’t done in recent years is assign each graduate a limited number of tickets, but officials say they are considering it.
Rodney Farrer of Augusta came to Statesboro last Friday to see his stepdaughter graduate. Arriving at Hanner about 10:40 a.m., he was one of about 30 people who remained outside the 11 a.m. ceremony after being told that the building had reached its capacity. Some received text messages from family members inside who were holding empty seats.
“This is not the way you treat parents after they paid four years of tuition. This only happens once," Farrer said.
Gym capacity varies
Officials say the apparent discrepancy between empty seats inside and barring further entry is a result of fire and safety regulations. The building’s maximum occupancy, enforced by the university fire marshal, applies to the total number of people in the building, not just in the permanent seats.
The maximum capacity for one of the university’s graduation ceremonies is about 3,200 people, said GSU Director of Communications Jennifer Wise.
“Those numbers vary depending on the configuration, the set-up of events,” she said.
Nearly 1,600 students receiving degrees from the university’s eight colleges, plus its graduate and interdisciplinary programs, were divided among the three graduation times, 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., last Friday.
Students could invite as many guests as they wanted. An overflow to the Russell Union occurred at the third ceremony, as well as the second, Wise said. But the second ceremony, at 11 a.m., included more graduates.
The Russell Union has been used for overflow seating for at least three or four years. But the Williams Center was “a backup to the backup” used for the first time this year, GSU Registrar Dr. Velma Burden said in an interview this week. Her office coordinates the commencement ceremonies.
“Typically the Union has been sufficient,” Burden said. “We put signs up. We were anticipating an overflow, and we tried to do things – golf carts, signs – just to make it an easy transition in case we had people who needed to go to the overflow area.”
The Russell Union Theater, which seats about 400 people, was full enough for the 11 a.m. ceremony that university employees set up about 300 chairs in a multipurpose room at the Williams Center, she said.
Researching ticket use
University officials are looking at the possibility of a ticket system for future commencements, she confirmed.
“We have been researching ticketing options, and we will debrief as we always do, we have a meeting scheduled,” Burden said. “Because it is a university event, we will bring in all parties so that we can discuss the best options going forward. We do want to address the issue the best way possible.”
Her office always sends a request to campus agencies such as the university police, fire marshal and facilities office for reports of problems and issues they encountered and suggested solutions, she said. Their follow-up meeting to the fall graduation is slated for the first week in January.
Other universities have gone to the use of tickets for graduations, Burden said. For example, Georgia Tech started issuing tickets for its bachelor’s degree ceremonies several years ago.
“We will certainly look at all options,” Burden said when asked if Paulson Stadium would ever be considered for fall commencement.
The football stadium, which seats more than 20,000 people, is used for spring graduations, when rain is possible but cold weather very unlikely.
The number of students graduating did not signal a larger overflow this fall. The 2014 fall commencement class was larger, with 1,707 graduates.
“We never know,” Burden said. “We plan based on our numbers of participants, and they were about the same as in the past. We kind of plan on five guests per student.”
Video of the Dec. 11 ceremonies was also livestreamed and remains available through www.georgiasouthern.edu/commencement. Look for the “video archives” box.
Previous SHS problem
Bulloch County’s three public high schools also use Hanner Fieldhouse for their graduation ceremonies. Statesboro High School’s May 30 graduation ceremony also overflowed, but with no alternative viewing sites. The school system had contracted for 3,500 seats, but a section was blocked by a screen left up from a previous event.
Afterwards, the university apologized, refunded Statesboro High’s fee, and helped put on a special graduation ceremony for a few families.
A university statement, issued in early June after the problem with Statesboro High’s graduation, concluded with this assertion:
“Neither the city of Statesboro nor Georgia Southern University have venues large enough to accommodate the growing needs of the community. We hope to work collectively with local officials and community stakeholders to find a solution to this growing problem. Until then, Georgia Southern is committed to providing safe and enjoyable venues for community events.”
Photojournalist Scott Bryant contributed to this story. Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.