SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) - Spring has sprung in northwest Louisiana, marking the end of a chapter for many students graduating from college in just a few months, but with the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering, institutions everywhere are having to painstakingly decide whether or not to host in-person or virtual graduation ceremonies.
LSU Shreveport (LSUS) is moving forward with the latter — and three students KSLA spoke with could not be more frustrated.
Dalton Smiley, a senior, said the decision to keep commencement virtual is ironic.
“The university has found ways to hold classes in-person, to hold sporting events in-person, but they found ways to make this graduation virtual,” he explained.
Courtney Jackson, who graduates this May, said she understands the position LSUS is taking but believes there are alternatives.
“I definitely understand the moral and ethical responsibility of not having it and wanting to keep everybody safe, but there are measures that can be put in place to still have an event,” added Jackson.
The Student Government Association (SGA) at LSUS took action. In fact, Tyson Lee, student body president, wrote a letter dated February 26, to Chancellor Larry Clark.
“On the 28 of January of this year, the Louisiana State University - Shreveport spring Graduate candidates, received an email informing them that the Spring Commencement of 2021 would be held virtually,” Lee writes. “Shortly after this email was sent out, the Student Government Association began to receive a flood of complaints concerning this news.”
On March 11, Willis wrote an op-ed in the LSUS student newspaper, The Almagest, and cites a survey conducted by SGA to gauge whether students preferred a live ceremony.
“Students spoke their truth, and 99% of them voted for a live ceremony,” she writes. “Future graduates have shown that they are not happy about this news.”
Jackson, the SGA secretary, and Willis, an SGA senator, created a presentation for Clark - detailing research they conducted which examines possible ways to safely hold an in-person commencement.
The presentation includes 10 quotes from students expressing discontent over the decision, as well as how other local universities, like Centenary College, Louisiana Tech and LSU A&M Baton Rouge, are finding ways to host in-person graduation ceremonies.
“I understand that the faculty especially is under a lot of pressure with this decision, I really think they are going to catch a lot of scrutiny and backlash for it and they have already,” Willis said.
Some of the options proposed by the SGA in their detailed and thorough presentation to Clark on March 1 include the following:
- Using Independence Stadium or Brookshire’s Grocery Arena
- Mandatory face coverings, social distancing and keeping family units together
- Limiting guests based on graduates attending
- Wellness screenings
Willis even requested a hold on Independence Stadium for May 15 and contacted the facility’s divisions manager for an application.
Despite the SGA’s best efforts, LSUS maintained its position to keep graduation virtual.
“We put in all of this effort and we never saw that matched effort from the administration,” Willis said.
But, LSUS Chancellor Larry Clark disagrees. In an interview with KSLA, Clark acknowledged the students’ frustration and disappointment but was clear on the reality of the moment.
“We’re in a pandemic and we have to be respectful of all of the consequences of the pandemic and that makes it difficult for us,” Clark explained. “There are people at risk...it is a spreader possibility.”
According to Clark, LSUS is in a unique position. He said around 7,000 students attend LSUS through its online programs, while “under 3,000″ are on-campus students.
This means that even during ‘normal’ times, commencement ceremonies at LSUS involve some online graduating students traveling to northwest Louisiana - sometimes from all over the world. According to Clark, graduation ceremonies at LSUS occur in a concurrent in-person/virtual format at Brookshire’s Grocery Arena - where some graduates physically attend and others online.
“We were doing two commencements at once, live for those who chose to come in, and many did choose to come in,” Clark explained. “But, there were a lot that did not...so we consequently had those students coming in through Facebook Live.”
On March 8, Clark officially sent a letter to Tyson Lee, SGA president, following the organization’s presentation on in-person graduation, explaining that he “committed to reviewing the decision to host a virtual ceremony.”
“We understand what the graduation ceremony represents for our community, faculty and staff, but most of all, our students, and their families,” Clark wrote. “However, based on the university’s ethical responsibility to the community along with other critical factors, holding an in-person ceremony is not prudent at this time.”
An email sent to students on March 22 details what Spring Commencement 2021 will entail - including two ceremonies on May 14 with graduating members being “assigned” to one of the ceremonies.
“These celebrations will include many elements of a traditional ceremony, including an address by the Chancellor, the Provost, the Director of Alumni Affairs, and a keynote speaker along with individual recognition for each of our graduates,” the email reads.
The celebration includes “interactive elements for graduates and their families” and the Shreveport Second Line Brass Band. Students are also encouraged to create a customizable slide with a photo and personal message.
“I have agreed to do - it’s not the same - individual pictures with graduates who want to have a picture with the chancellor in my regalia,” Clark added. “I have agreed to do that.”
For Shelby Willis, Dalton Smiley and Courtney Jackson, pictures with the chancellor do not cut it.
“The way the situation was handled, I don’t feel listened to at this point, I never thought there was a compromise in place,” said Smiley. “For that reason, I am interested in pursuing other options when it comes to furthering my education.”
Willis also questions why students are required to pay a $50 graduation fee when ceremonies are taking place online.
“For one to two thousand [graduating] students, that’s 50 to 100 thousand dollars to hold a Facebook Live ceremony,” Willis said.
Chancellor Clark responded to that question, asked by KSLA, and highlighted complex production costs for the event. He added that the $50 fee from students doesn’t actually cover all of the commencement expenses this year.
“The bottom line cost to LSUS is greater than what it has been when we’re just using the Brookshire Grocery Arena alone,” Clark explained. “The speaker we’re paying, we’re paying a five-figure speaker fee that we don’t do and haven’t done in the past.”
Even as vaccinations continue to increase across the country, and as cases continue to remain low, the fallout from the pandemic continues to leave behind devastating and emotional trauma - something both these students and the chancellor can agree upon.
“We only get one graduation, only one moment to be celebrated and appreciated.”