UF Commencements and the Power of Listening

BY KIRAN MITAL

Overuse of a word often hides its meaning. For example, people throw around the word “transparency” a lot these days. We constantly demand transparency from our superiors, usually with good intention. Individuals are collectively recognizing the importance of promoting open communication and giving everyone a voice. And yet, again and again we hear about decisions being made with almost no popular support. Change.org continues brimming with petitions that never go through, and public outrage keeps dividing communities. As we continue to call for transparency, more cases arise where the word loses its meaning. How can such an educated and aware society continually encounter this problem? What does it mean for universities?

In response to the aggressive handling of students at the spring 2018 commencement, UF will no longer continue the tradition of walking across the stage in front of the entire graduating class. Rather, the university-wide ceremony will feature speakers and the processional, while students will be recognized in front of their respective colleges at a separate time.

First, there are logistical problems: visitors will have to make accommodations in order to attend ceremonies, two days apart for some, which can be difficult for families. Logistics aside, however, the students’ emotional appeals are just as valid. Walking across that stage and seeing peers and loved ones motivates so many hardworking students. They see graduation as a momentous occasion dictated by tradition. When the university sacrifices tradition for efficiency, it essentially dehumanizes the graduates, and the ceremony becomes no different than simply mailing out the degrees. UF announced Stephen Stills as the university-wide ceremony speaker due to the extra time permitted by the policy change. While UF prepares and finalizes more plans, students insist on restoring tradition.

Students are angry, but where do we draw the line with our criticism? We have gone so far as to say that the university doesn’t care about us. No one needs to be completely on board with the new policy, but at this point we should take a step back and consider the administrative standpoint. UF is an enormous institution, and it graduates more students every year. When your job is to organize a ceremony, its efficiency is high on the priority list. Plus, we cannot forget that the new policy resulted from large-scale backlash over last spring’s ceremony. Public scrutiny often pressures an organization into making immediate decisions, usually resulting in short-term solutions before long-term ones. It’s a tough situation to handle, even for professionals.

The controversy started when a marshal signaled out African-American graduates and forced them off the stage. Robbing a person of his or her biggest moments in front of the masses sends a big message. All students, regardless of their backgrounds, deserve the right to walk across the stage and take ownership of their moment. Whether the university’s actions were intentional or not, criticism is more than justifiable. Administration’s new policy signals failure in addressing the root of the problem, the spring 2018 commencement.

We should not blame the decision-makers without empathy, yet we have rights as students, and we cannot ignore our responsibilities. This is where conversation comes in. As rapid as the times change, we need to keep up. Not with impulse, but by talking it through. Instead after the situation worsens, everyone needs his or her say the first time around, College teaches us to stand up for our beliefs, a value that carries into the professional world. Moving forward, we must recognize that all sides have the graduates’ best interests in mind. Then, speaking and listening can occur before a plan of action forms. This is what transparency is: maintaining open dialogue. We need to be aware of each other. We can’t let the word be tossed around because it will always be important.

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