As Of Yet Untitled
Last week marks the graduation of the 11,430 members of the Rutgers class of 2009. Convocation was not one cohesive event; at Rutgers, each of the many sub-schools has traditionally held its own commencement ceremony, and this year was no different. Rutgers actually hosted 27 convocation ceremonies over the course of the week by my count. Being a member of Rutgers College, I was joined by 2500+ fellow liberal arts students on the lawn of Voorhees Mall last Thursday. I’ve attended the State University of New Jersey for four years now, years spent as Student Number 010004747. I must say, if I had any pretentions of being treated as an individual by the administration before the ceremony, I had none by the time I arrived. I went out like I came in: just a number among thousands.
Originally, 2009 was intended to be the last time that Rutgers-New Brunswick would accommodate separate ceremonies. Starting in 2010, every graduating member of RU-NB was to be herded together into the what would be then, newly completed football stadium for a massive one-time commencement ceremony. Rutgers, determined to exhibit the product of its $100million+ stadium expansion plan, would honor its graduates in the same manner it entertains them: with spectacle. But if you were hoping for your name to be read out loud, or your hand to be shaken, or your parents to be able to pick you out from the 10,000+ strong crowd (that is, if you were hoping to graduate with dignity) you would have been \ fresh out of luck. In the last months of the past semester, the Daily Tragum’s opinion pages were peppered with articles about the commencement consolidation, not a single one in favor of the goal. This was one issue where the Targum was wholly successful in presenting students’ sentiments of anger and frustration. After significant student protest, climaxing in the presentation of a petition to President McCormick, the University agreed to grant the class of 2010 the honor of traditional, individualized ceremonies by school. I applaud the University for heeding the voices of its students. But after experiencing the traditional graduation myself, I have to question whether the hullabaloo was really all that necessary. Let me show you what I mean, by recounting some of my experience.
The day began for me, as for many, with a private parent-arranged photo session in a friend’s backyard. We stood around smiling in our black robes, exchanging nervous complements, as the sun (with the temperature) rose. By the time we set off for the ceremony, it was pushing 75 degrees. Who ordered those stuffy black robes anyway?
When we arrived at Olde Queens campus for our pre-ceremony instructions, we were shepherded into rows and organized alphabetically. I was astounded by the efficiency with which the administration handled the task: each student was given an index card with his or her name on it, along with a place number. That day, I was #815. Remarkably, we were organized in a timely fashion, and began the procession at 1:45 sharp. It took us a good 45 minutes just to get all the students seated, the whole time in a sweltering heat. A covered stage faced us, flanked by two jumbo screens for the purpose of making our sweaty faces visible to the audience.
Dean Carl Kirschner, perhaps the least funny man at Rutgers, acted as Master of Ceremonies (the President was nowhere to be seen). But unfortunately for all of us, he decided to adopt the role of a standup comedian. From where I was sitting, he drew only tired groans from the audience; one of the more obnoxious jokes he tried regarded the recent swine flu crisis. Fearing the potential of a Rutgers graduation ceremony to spark a new ground zero for the widely expected epidemic, the traditional hand shake from the dean was to be discarded, and so Dean Kirschner thought it would be appropriate to present a few options for avoiding the contagion. He pulled out a series of gloves, and proceeded to sport them for the audience: latex, rubber, a Mickey Mouse hand, and finally, a red foam sports finger. That joke in particular was received with a sweeping sigh and a collective eye roll from the students.
The convocation speaker, Mary Baglivo, class of ’79, sought to encourage Rutgers students by recounting her time at Rutgers. Her main thesis was this: “Rutgers is Grit, Guts, and Genius.” Let’s disregard the fact that such a trite and simplistic marketing metaphor makes very little sense to begin with. And forget about the fact that Baglivo boldly assumed that every Rutgers student in front of her had voted for President You-Know-Who (I certainly didn’t)– I have another problem. The program listed Baglivo as CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, an international advertising company. What it failed to mention was that Baglivo also happens to be a Dean at Rutgers, as well as a member of the Board of Governors. I thought key note convocation speakers were supposed to be off the University payroll. I suppose at least they managed to save a few bucks by using her…
Two student leaders also were given the chance to speak to the audience: Melody Wilding and Dymir Arthur. In the student section, impressed oohs and ahhs for Melody’s 4.0 GPA were quickly replaced by mocking sniggers at the announcement of her majors: American Studies and Psychology. At Rutgers, the students at least know which majors constitute real work, and which constitute mostly movie watching. Both of Melody’s majors are of the latter kind. I thought Dymir, for his part, did an excellent Barack Obama impression; but for my part, I’d rather not have heard about how we should all be jumping on the change-train now that we’re graduated. This is Rutgers, not Notre Dame. Politics should be kept out of it.
After these lackluster speakers had retired the mic, it was time to start filing up to the stage to receive our “certificates of participation” (Rutgers doesn’t distribute diplomas at commencement, a fact that leaves many students wondering why they would want to attend at all). This process took a full two hours, in the by now 80+ degree heat. More than one student actually fainted waiting for their turn to get in line (luckily, there were medics on hand). Dean Kirschner’s request that the students stay seated after having their name called did nothing to stop the majority of students from simply walking out immediately afer, and by the time I had gotten down from the stage, wide swaths of empty chairs glared out at me from the student section. Having my name read out loud by some dean, who learned it for the first time just seconds before butchering it into her microphone didn’t appease me. Fears about swine flu prevented my hand from being shaken; that honor was reserved for the student speakers and excellence award winners. And you can be sure that the only time my family saw my face during the ceremony was on the jumbo-tron.
And so I’m left wondering: if I had taken part in a consolidated commencement ceremony, would anything have been different? Would the speakers have been any better? Would the heat have been any worse? Would the lack of “individual recognition” and a handshake have made for a less dignified exit to college? Would I have been any less insignificant in the eyes of the University? I doubt it. Inevitably, what matters at such a ceremony are two things: family and friends. The presence or absence of these will make or break your commencement, not the format it is delivered in. But still, time will tell if the class of 2011 decides to take the consolidation lying down…
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time here at Rutgers, it is this: you always get what you pay for. That goes for your education too. Congratulations to all of you members of the Rutgers class of 2009.