Commencement Commotion: University responds to student graduation complaints

Zoe Stratos | Opinions Editor. As of Sunday the petition had over 1,200 singnatures. Class of 2022 Students in the School of Education, School of Natural and Environmental Science and School of Music are hoping to move their commencement from the Union Ballroom to a different location such as the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse to receive their diplomas.

Zoe Stratos and Capri Scarcelli | opinions and a&e editor

Jan. 27, 2022

It’s the start of the spring semester for Duquesne students, but the beginning of the end for undergraduate, graduate and doctoral seniors graduating in May. 

At the start of the spring semester, the university announced its plans for May 2022 commencement on their website, including a list of dates and times for academic schools’ ceremonies — in two different locations. 

For the less-populated academic schools — the School of Education, Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Science and the Mary Pappert School of Music, the university has elected to hold the graduations in the Union Ballroom, while other schools will receive their diplomas in the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse.

The announcement to hold the smaller schools in the Union Ballroom is nothing new, as similar schedules were standard in previous years; however, various students took action to change the location, furious with the setting for graduation.

In response to the outcry, university leaders offered changes to the time and location of the commencement after a robust back and forth with students and faculty.

Judith Cooke, a senior secondary education social studies major, received the announcement email from academic advisor Saundra Bondo on the morning of Jan. 21. Just moments after sweeping through group chats and social media, Cooke said she felt compelled to make a petition “10 minutes after hearing the news,” which was soon posted on

The petition was paired with a letter that was anonymously written by a senior education major, and passed along through the soon-to-be-graduated class as a way to get the attention of administration, according to Cooke. As students’ concerns only grew, Cooke made the letter into a petition that was then shared through Facebook, Instagram and more. 

“I want to know how a committee of people could compare the newly-renovated Cooper Fieldhouse to the Ballroom, which they made into a glorified cafeteria last year,” Cooke said. “You can see Chick-fil-A from the stage, and parents sitting on the sides of the room would have to watch from a tiny screen.”  

According to Cooke, many seniors associate the Union Ballroom with informal campus events, such as Freshman Orientation’s ‘Graffiti Dance,’ DPC’s ‘Epic Bingo’ and various guest speakers. 

For incoming freshmen, the matriculation ceremony that celebrates the start of a Duquesne student’s academic journey has been held in the Fieldhouse, formerly known as the AJ Palumbo Center. For Cooke and others, students have expressed the desire for their academic experience at Duquesne to come “full circle” — graduating in the same building they were first introduced to at Duquesne. 

“If the ceremony were held in the Power Center [Ballroom] or somewhere more professional, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Cooke said. “The [Union] Ballroom is outdated, and we don’t want our ceremony to reflect that.” 

Senior secondary education and English major Vanessa Llewellen was one of many concerned students who had signed the petition upon hearing the news. Llewellen said she was “gravely disappointed”  that her graduating class would be overlooked in the Union Ballroom, considering the Class of 2022 would be earning their degrees amidst the worldwide spread of Covid-19. 

“Not only have our tuition dollars gone toward the gorgeous new building that we aren’t getting to walk in, but we are earning a degree in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a huge accomplishment and deserves a celebration and ceremony that reflects the resilience of this class,” Llewellen said. 

According to Llewellen, students have expressed safety concerns with Covid, afraid that a smaller venue for graduation would make an audience more at-risk of contracting the virus without proper social-distance. Aside from this, Cooke said that there was no official announcement as to how many guests an individual student can bring to the ceremony, regardless of Covid-19 concerns or space available in the Union Ballroom. 

As of Sunday, the petition had over 1,200 signatures.

Students in the other two schools have had their frustrations with the announcement, including music performance major Ethan Berman.

“I first heard about the news when I saw the petition being sent around,” Berman said. “I wasn’t too happy, and felt underappreciated. After four years of hard work, I felt like I deserved the same graduation experience everyone else was going to get.”

The university responded to the grievances of students as early as Sunday, Jan. 23, through an email from Provost David Dausey. A portion of the email reads:

“The university’s leadership team has been looking into the concerns raised by you and others who sent similar notes about the specific venue where our events professionals have planned the commencement for the School of Education, the Mary E. Pappert School of Music and the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences.”

The email continued on to list the many events hosted within the ballroom, stating it has hosted “some of the most elegant and important events on campus over the years,” while also holding “beautiful graduation ceremonies for more than 20 years.”

Comments from all three of the schools’ were included regarding the location.

“For many years, graduates of the Bayer School and their families have enjoyed celebrating their graduation in a Diploma Ceremony in the Union Ballroom,” said Ellen Gawalt, dean of the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences. “This venue has allowed everyone to be present and to be close enough to see their graduate proudly walk across the stage. We are looking forward to returning to this traditional graduation venue followed by our reception where students and families celebrate and meet their graduate’s friends and mentors who have supported them through their time at Duquesne.”

Though students seem to be disappointed with the location of the ballroom, Dausey outlined prior complaints from students and families advocating for the smaller location, stating that the “UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse can appear half-empty and cavernous when used for these smaller schools.”

University spokespeople did not comment on the max capacities of the spaces used for commencement.

Dausey also mentioned in the email that the university’s leadership team is willing to further explore a venue change in response to complaints. 

According to Dausey, event planners have advised that a possible combination of different schools’ ceremonies may be the optimal solution, allowing for there to be sufficient changes in between the ceremonies, as well as a thorough cleaning.

Shortly after Dausey’s email was sent to concerned students, the School of Education hosted an open Zoom conference with Dean Gretchen Generett to allow education students to officially voice their concerns brought forth by the petition, while also formulating alternative plans for the May commencement.

During the meeting, Generett said to students that she was “surprised and proud to get the petition,” and wanted students to tell her directly what they wanted.

The meeting was largely open ended, allowing students to come forward with their reasons for not wanting the commencement in the ballroom. The list included, but was not limited to, worries about the size of the building, its use as a cafeteria during the height of Covid, its out-dated feel compared to the fieldhouse and social distancing capabilities.

Upon hearing their grievances, Generett offered two options to the students. The first being to combine the school of education commencement with another to avoid time overlap issues, while moving into the Fieldhouse. The second being to move the commencement to the Power Center Ballroom, which students voiced would provide a better environment than the Union. 

In her closing remarks, Generett said administration would like the matter “reconciled within the next week,” and urged her students to continue their advocacy, while also taking advantage of their access to her, and others within the school of education.

As of Wednesday, Jan. 26, Generett gave the okay for Cooke to send a poll through the petition. The poll asks whether or not students would be willing to switch the ceremony date to May 14 at 2 p.m. in order to accommodate requests for commencement in the Cooper Fieldhouse, or they can keep the original May 13 at 5 p.m. in the Union Ballroom. 

To vote, graduates and parents/guardians of graduates must fill out the Google form in the link provided by the petition website.