Some recent graduates are frustrated after being told that students who are not participating in surveillance testing this spring, including those who graduated in September or December 2020, cannot attend the May 2 in-person commencement ceremony Duke hopes to hold.
President Vincent Price announced March 2 that Duke hoped to host an in-person ceremony in Wallace Wade stadium for members of the Class of 2021 who have been “regular participants” in COVID-19 surveillance testing. Multiple seniors who graduated early have been told by an administrator or dean that they will not be able to attend the in-person ceremony.
There is still a possibility that the decision may change. Duke’s vice president of administration told The Chronicle the issue was “under active discussion,” while a dean told a recent graduate that attendance may be expanded if public health conditions safely allow.
Charlie Gelman was unsure whether he would be able to attend the ceremony after Price’s March 2 email, as he graduated in December 2020 and has not participated in COVID-19 surveillance testing this semester.
Gelman called the Office of the President and spoke to Sarah Braman, executive assistant at the office. Braman reached out to Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, and included his response in an email to Gelman.
“Indeed, in a usual year students with September and December graduation dates could participate in the spring commencement,” Bennett told Braman according to the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle. “However, this year, commencement will be restricted to those students who have been involved in our Covid testing and surveillance, so unfortunately [Gelman] would not be eligible.”
Duke's commencement team did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. Vice President of Administration Kyle Cavanaugh wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the issue was still "under active discussion” and a team member would be available to speak on the topic early next week, but did not provide further information about students who graduated early and commencement.
Price's March 2 announcement noted that Duke would continue to current circumstances and public health guidelines.
"Should conditions improve, we may consider expanding the scope of the ceremony," he wrote. "On the other hand, should the situation worsen, we may be forced to make the entire event virtual."
Savita Gupta graduated in December 2020 and emailed Rachael Murphey, director of Program II and Gupta’s academic dean, on March 5 asking if she could attend graduation.
“The current public health situation prevents us from inviting back students who have not been part of our testing protocol throughout the spring,” Murphey wrote to Gupta in an email, a copy of which was reviewed by The Chronicle. “We are monitoring the situation closely and continuously evaluating our plans, including the possibility of expanding attendance if we are safely able to do so. We will be in touch with any updates.”
Henry Haggart graduated in December 2020. His mother emailed the commencement team asking who to contact with concerns about Haggart not being able to attend the commencement ceremony. She received a nearly identical response to what Murphey sent Gupta.
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A petition, a meeting with the DSG president
Gelman and several other students were frustrated with administrators’ responses to their concerns. They feel like they are not being listened to and that Duke is not working with them to find other solutions so that they can attend commencement.
“They've not even acknowledged that we've proposed some, in my opinion, very reasonable solutions to our problem,” Haggart said. “There's just been no logic behind why we've been excluded or why we can't find a solution for this.”
Gelman and Matthew Cone, a December 2020 graduate, started a petition on Tuesday for Duke to “[create] a safe pathway students can utilize to rejoin the testing protocol and participate in graduation.”
The petition notes that seniors were not consulted in the decision.
“Many of these seniors would not have made the choices they made if they knew it would forbid them from their own graduation ceremony,” it reads.
The petition also noted that Duke has established ways for students who travel outside of Durham to come to campus, including sequestering until they test negative twice for COVID-19. “Duke’s decision to prevent graduating seniors from returning under similar protocol is beyond comprehension,” the petition reads.
As of early Saturday, the petition has received over 950 signatures.
Gelman told The Chronicle that they want to be able to meet with administrators face to face and that they feel the petition will help them get to that step.
Gelman, Cone, Haggart and other students met Wednesday with Duke Student Government President Tommy Hessel, a senior, on Wednesday to discuss their concerns and figure out next steps.
Hessel had reached out after he saw the petition and wanted to help. He said in an interview that he suggested administrators for the students to share concerns with and discussed the issue with Bennett and Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president of student affairs.
Some ideas Hessel and the students discussed were showing proof of vaccination or coming to campus and quarantining for 14 days before commencement. They researched current plans at peer institutions—for example, Yale University is allowing both on-campus and remote seniors to attend an in-person commencement ceremony with no guests.
Duke's surveillance testing system, currently a requirement for the in-person graduation, involves the University conducting more than 20,000 pooled COVID-19 tests a week on students, faculty and staff who come to campus, to search for asymptomatic infection.
Hessel said that letting off-campus students attend the graduation was a matter of getting them back into that testing system.
“It’s just not something they have set up as a mechanism right now,” Hessel said. “It’s now getting people to understand that if we set this up, we can do it.”
‘I figured this was the final piece’
Sonia Lau, who graduated in December 2020, told The Chronicle that she “wouldn’t have graduated early if [she] had known” that she wouldn’t be able to attend the commencement ceremony.
Gelman told The Chronicle that he was looking forward to four things his senior year: football senior night, wrestling senior night, the Duke-Carolina basketball games and graduation.
“Just being able to walk [at commencement] felt like the final part of my Duke experience. Three of the four had been taken from me. I figured that this was the final piece of the Duke experience. I would give up those other three to have this one, and now even that is taken away from me,” Gelman said. “But for no real reason.”
Gupta feels that she’s missing the opportunity to say goodbye.
“We’re missing out on that moment to celebrate everything that we’ve worked for four years for and that we’ve gone through together on an unfounded technicality,” she said.
Lau said that her older sister graduated from Duke in 2008 and remembers dreaming about graduating from Duke since that moment. She was originally “devastated” that her parents would not be able to attend the ceremony.
“I recognize the sacrifice that everybody in our class has to make,” she said, “but for the couple of us that fall into this category, we have to make the sacrifice that we can’t even walk at graduation.”
Lau added that it “feels so wrong” when everyone is discussing their graduation plans and what they’re going to wear and she has to “stay silent in those conversations.”
Cone told The Chronicle that he also wouldn’t have graduated early if he had known he wouldn’t be able to walk. He said that he feels Duke has done an “excellent job” handling COVID-19 but that he feels commencement “has been taken away for some of us without any good explanation.”
“It feels almost like a betrayal where I spend so much time, energy and effort with a light at the end of the tunnel," Cone said, "and then that light was immediately shut off without a single good reason or warning.”