Olympics over Commencement?

(Billy Lawson/Emerald)

For the second consecutive year, the University of Oregon will conduct its commencement ceremony virtually. The decision came after several months of planning meetings and uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 vaccine distribution and changing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Vice President for Student Life Kevin Marbury.

“Even with the idea that there could be a vaccine available later on, it was just not practical,” Marbury said. “We looked at the situation we find ourselves in right now in terms of limits on sizes of gatherings, and we just decided this was probably not the best way for us to proceed in terms of in-person commencement activity.”

Marbury said an average graduating class is about 5,000 people, and about 35,000 friends and family attend the commencement ceremony. These numbers greatly surpass Oregon state limitations on gathering sizes, which Marbury said was the main factor guiding the decision to make commencement virtual.

Many schools, including the University of Washington, have found that a hybrid commencement ceremony combining live and virtual elements can work out well. Marbury said his team explored the possibility of smaller, departmental in-person ceremonies with families watching virtually, but decided it would not be feasible for larger schools like the Lundquist College of Business, which can have nearly a thousand graduating students in any given year.

“You can quickly see how it becomes very, very impractical for us to try to identify a way to actually get folks to have a meaningful experience in person,” Marbury said. “The practicality of being able to do graduation ceremonies outside in smaller venues was still going to be problematic, if not impossible, especially considering the limitations that we have as it relates to the gathering piece.”

Despite going through with the decision to conduct commencement virtually on June 12, the university will continue to host the in-person U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field in June at Hayward Field.

“That's an obligation that we signed many years ago,” Marbury said. “So if they're able to safely hold the event, we're obligated to honor that contract.”

The Hayward Field renovation cost an estimated $200 million, according to The Oregonian, and the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials brought in an estimated $37 million to the surrounding community, according to Travel Lane County.

CEO of TrackTown USA Michael Reilly said he does not yet have specifics on the COVID-19 protocols for the event, but he expects the safety plan will include wearing masks, social distancing, regular sanitation and testing athletes. He said it will be “quite some time” before there is an answer on whether or not spectators will be permitted to the event at Hayward because health officials are mainly focusing on events that take place in winter and spring.

“The university absolutely is part of our integrated team building these safety protocols,” Reilly said. “The university rents the facility, so our contract will specify the requirements, and one of the policies will be working very closely in hand with the university, USA Track and Field, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, Lane County and the Oregon Health Authority to develop the policies and the plans.”

According to someone familiar with the matter, the UO Foundation returned Hayward Field to the university in June 2020. The university has full ownership of the property and manages it as well. The UO Foundation is a nonprofit that receives, invests and distributes private gifts made to UO.

UO social media accounts faced backlash from students, particularly graduating seniors, after the school announced the decision Feb. 9. Students called for the university to cancel the in-person Olympic trials if it was going to cancel in person commencement.

Graduating senior Ethan Shafer said he had been expecting a virtual commencement, but the decision to also go through with the Olympic trials felt like a “slap in the face.”

“How can you say that you're trying to keep people safe, and that you're making this huge decision to cancel graduation for the second year in a row, but then also not even address what’s happening with the Olympic trials?” Shafer said. “The university has not said anything. They won't even address something that everyone is really pissed off about.”

Shafer has worked several places on campus, including in the dorms as a resident assistant, and at ASUO and UO Conference Services. He said these jobs helped him understand how the university handles certain situations, but he believes the university could have done a better job with commencement.

“I know why the university would think that it would be too hard to get ready after these graduation ceremonies for the Olympic trials sanitation-wise and getting students out of the dorms,” Shafer said. “But I still think that that isn't necessarily an excuse.”