In-person commencement bill introduced

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UNI alumnus and newly elected Representative Carter Nordman introduces new bill that would require in-person spring commencements.

CAROLINE CHRISTENSEN

In response to backlash against UNI’s decision to hold spring commencement online, the Commencement Committee (which consists of students, faculty and staff) held an emergency meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 16 in order to discuss possible alternatives to a fully online ceremony.

The committee noted that to hold a safe in-person ceremony, many traditional parts of the ceremony could be eliminated, including the processional, the shaking of President Nook’s hand, the distribution of diploma covers and the platform party or grand marshals. In addition, many faculty members who are typically involved with the ceremony who are at high risk for COVID19 complications would be unlikely to participate.

The UNI-Dome was discussed as a possible venue for the ceremony, as there are no outdoor venues large enough to accommodate the event. Although athletic events have been held in the UNI-Dome, the university has concerns about holding commencement there, as they discussed in a statement for KWWL.

“The total capacity for the UNI-Dome is currently limited to 2,600 people,” the statement reads. “If graduation were moved there, even if we limited each of our graduates to just one spectator, we would already be over capacity. If we split the event into multiple days/times we would still need to limit the number of guests.”

The athletic events held also required extensive COVID19 cautionary procedures that would not be possible to execute for commencement.

“Due to the number of participants, a commencement ceremony requires a larger number of employees to be involved and increases the health risk to our employees,” the statement reads. “As part of NCAA requirements, many of the employees involved in our athletic events are required to follow strict testing and quarantine protocols that we cannot require of other employees. It is not likely that many of our employees will have been vaccinated by the time of commencement.”

Other worries addressed by the committee included concerns that eight to ten thousand people may be brought into Black Hawk County as a result of the ceremony, resulting in the spread of COVID-19 cases. The continually changing regulations from the governor and the CDC may also result in last minute changes to the ceremony. Finally, they discussed how to enforce mask wearing and social distancing, as well as addressing how students may be disappointed with the experience since it will not be normal.

UNI public relations manager Steve Schmadeke emphasized the importance of safety in regard to an in-person ceremony.

“Graduation is the pinnacle of a student’s academic career, and the University of Northern Iowa is incredibly proud and supportive of the accomplishments of our graduates,” Schmadeke said. “As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we must be mindful of protecting the health of our students, employees and community. A large number of considerations went into the decision, but the foremost goal is keeping students, their families and loved ones safe.”

Although no final decision has been made by the committee, a new bill introduced at the Iowa state legislature by newly elected Representative Carter Nordman (a UNI student) would require Iowa’s three Regent universities to have in-person spring commencements and allow at least two guests per graduate to attend the ceremony.

“What prompted me was the concerns and the frustrations with a lot of the students not only at the University of Northern Iowa, but at Iowa and Iowa State as well,” Nordman said. “I wanted to write the bill in order to ensure that they felt they were being heard, and that their frustrations were being understood and well taken.”

Nordman believes graduating classes can have in-person ceremonies while also maintaining COVID-19 regulations.

“These students have made tremendous sacrifices in this pandemic already, and with that I don’t think a PowerPoint presentation does them justice,” Nordman said. “At the end of the day, I believe that if (commencement) can be done in a safe and effective manner, they deserve that opportunity. That opportunity they only get to do once in their life.” Nordman met with UNI President Nook on Thursday, Feb. 18 to discuss spring commencement.

“I think the university is trying their best to accommodate every side that they can, while ensuring the safety of their students, faculty, staff and guests,” Nordman said. “We may have disagreements on how that should be conducted, but I do commend President Nook for taking the time to meet and listen to all sides of this issue.”

A petition asking the university to reconsider an in-person commencement ceremony created by senior digital communications major Mili Saliu has received over 2,000 signatures. Saliu has scheduled a meeting with the provost on Feb. 26 in order to discuss spring commencement further.

For more information, students can reach out to the Office of University Relations at [email protected]