ASU cancels May commencement due to coronavirus, joining NAU, UArizona

Arizona State University students celebrate in this spring 2006 graduation photo. ASU President Michael Crow on Thursday announced in-person May commencement ceremonies will be canceled because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Graduates will be celebrated in a virtual ceremony. (Photo by Tom Story/ASU)

PHOENIX – Arizona State University will conduct spring graduation ceremonies online rather than in person to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, upending a storied tradition where graduates stride across a stage before beaming families and friends and the ASU community to celebrate earning their diplomas.

ASU President Michael Crow’s announcement on Thursday was not unexpected, given the state’s two other universities and colleges across the country already have decided to forego or delay commencement ceremonies. Crow vowed to make the virtual experience a celebration and said May graduates also could choose to walk in December or next year.

Still, the news cast a pall over some seniors and their families who are already grappling with enormous life shifts in the wake of the pandemic, which has ground much of the economy to a halt, shuttered sports and entertainment events, spurred panic buying at grocery stores and prompted acts of charity and social good.

Megan Estrem, an ASU senior majoring in social work, said she feels hurt despite the university’s reasoning.

“I feel completely bummed and more than that, I feel hurt that they couldn’t figure something out for us,” Estrem said. “I feel like everyone in this class of 2020 worked really hard and we deserve our own special ceremony. It just won’t be the same. That part is hard to process.”

Estrem, who’s from Chicago, noted that for out-of state-students, the cancellation not only is emotional, it’s financially disruptive.

“My family already took time off of work and booked plane tickets,” she said. “For me, I already bought graduation apparel and paid the fees. I don’t think we will be getting any of that back. I am just confused about why this is happening the way it is.”

Crow, who moved ASU classes to remote teaching and learning online on March 16, said there was no choice.

“Due to the continued spread of the COVID-19 virus and the public health recommendations that come with it, we have reached the only responsible decision and course of action available: Arizona State University’s 2020 Spring commencement and convocations will move to virtual, online ceremonies,” Crow said in a statement. “The format may be different, but our enthusiasm for celebration has never been more inspired.”

In addition to the online ceremony, graduating seniors will also be permitted to participate, in person, in graduation ceremonies in either December 2020 or May 2021.

“I understand the desire to share this special occasion with classmates, family and friends,” Crow said. “So, let’s do that. Now, and later if you choose to do so.”

It’s unclear whether the university will offer refunds for certain expenses. According to the State Press, students will not receive a refund for their graduation fees but they can get refunds for their caps and gowns as long as they are unopened.

It also reported that ASU will offer a $1,500 nonrefundable credit to on-campus students who choose to move off-campus by April 15 and have accommodations elsewhere. Students who move out before the 15th and out-of-state students who moved out after April 1 are eligible for the credit. Residents halls will remain staffed for students who choose to stay, housing officials said.

Some students expressed their dismay on social media.

ASU student Meliana Karem tweeted: “I can’t even imagine how first gen students feel after finding out graduation will be held on zoom. The odds have always been against us and now ASU is taking away the moment they get to walk down the stage. Class 2020 deserves better.”

ASU senior Parker Alyse tweeted: “4 years of hard work and dedication just to attend my own graduation VIRTUALLY like none of it ever mattered… thanks @ASU”

UArizona senior Alyssa Bale tweeted: “The UofA just announced that my graduation ceremony is cancelled. While I completely understand why it is being done, to say I’m devastated is an understatement. As the first to graduate college in my family, I’m unbelievably disappointed I don’t get to share this achievement.”

The May commencement ceremony is traditionally the biggest one of the year, usually conducted at Desert Financial Arena in Tempe. Last spring, roughly 15,800 students graduated from ASU. Graduates, gowned in maroon and gold, many with elaborately decorated caps, sit on the field surrounded by faculty and other honorees while family and friends watch from the stands. A nationally known person usually conducts the commencement speech.

Several other ceremonies are conducted in the days surrounding the big event, including those for separate colleges like a School of Sustainability Convocation, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering Convocation and Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions as well as for groups like honor students and and the Black African Convocation.

ASU’s decision follows several other universities across the nation, including Columbia University, the University of California Irvine, the University of Texas and Savannah College of Art and Design.

In a note on March 20, University of Arizona President Robert Robbins announced the cancellation of May commencement, which he said would affect more than 11,000 students, from undergraduate to doctoral.

“My biggest regret for the Class of 2020 is that you didn’t get to enjoy these final weeks of being a student and your final celebration with your classmates,” Robbins said.

To compensate, the university is looking at other ways to celebrate the occasion and will share those plans with students in the coming weeks, he said.

“To that end, our presidential events and university ceremonies team has taken on this challenge as its top priority,” Robbins said. “It is important that the campus community celebrate your achievements.”

Similar to ASU’s approach, graduates are also invited to participate in future commencements in December or even next May, depending on how COVID-19 evolves.

Grand Canyon University President Brian Mueller on March 16 announced that the university’s spring commencement ceremonies would be postponed.

“GCU has no choice but to postpone graduation ceremonies that are scheduled for April and early May,” Mueller’s statement said. “The health and well-being of our GCU community and visitors to campus is of the utmost importance.”

Instead, GCU plans to create a “reunion/graduation” weekend in December.

“We hope the December event provides an opportunity to reunite with their classmates and celebrate their accomplishments at commencement among family and friends,” Mueller said.

On Tuesday, NAU officials announced that graduation ceremonies have been canceled.

“We understand how disappointing this news is for our graduates,” NAU President Rita Cheng wrote in an email to students. “However, this decision is necessary to ensure the safety, health, and well-being of our community during this unprecedented global health crisis.”

The university is working on a plan for a virtual commencement ceremony in May and invited the nearly 6,000 graduates to walk in a “special ceremony” in December. Crow and other university presidents have not outlined what shape the virtual ceremonies will take.

Estrem said that, despite the change in plans, graduating seniors will leave ASU with one certainty.

“I want to acknowledge every senior’s hard work,” she said. “I was president of my sorority, I had internships and went to school full-time. So, graduation, walking across that stage, it was supposed to be recognition of my hard work. I want them to know that even if the school isn’t taking this moment seriously, I see them and I know they put their all into this.”

Jamie Landers Jay-mee Lan-duhrz
Innovation Squad, Phoenix

Jamie Landers expects to graduate in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Landers has been a reporter and anchor for Cronkite News, as well as a breaking news reporter for The Arizona Republic and a documentary producer for Arizona PBS.