Opinion editorial

Petition for opt-in commencement ceremony is exclusive and misguided

Commencement is meant to celebrate the success of all graduates, not just those who can afford to attend

In the past couple of weeks, a petition asking MIT to provide an opt-in, in-person commencement ceremony for the Class of 2021 has circulated and accumulated over 800 signatures in support. Though the intent behind the petition stems from missing the community aspect of Commencement and being unable to fully celebrate a class of graduates who have already lost their final year at MIT to COVID-19, the petition itself is misguided.

One argument that the petition presents is that a large stadium (like Fenway Park) could be rented out, or that the ceremony could be restricted to graduates only, to curb the potential spread of COVID-19. However, the check-in process of such an endeavor, as well as the nearly enclosed aisles one would need to walk through to get to the open-air space, would put both graduates and workers in attendance in contact with many more people than would be allowed in an outdoor gathering according to many COVID-19 regulations. Even though many will be vaccinated by the beginning of June, many will not, and the risk involved in holding a ceremony with even just a few hundred students will still be relatively high. 

Further, comparing Commencement to on-campus housing is a misleading analogy, since MIT has set up the infrastructure beginning in summer 2020 to continually test, contact trace, and quarantine those with positive results. It is unlikely that MIT has the capacity to do the same with everyone attending Commencement in person, not to mention people’s unwillingness to quarantine for a week or longer, right before or after graduating. While the guidelines may change in the coming months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently advise quarantining for a full week after travel, further complicating the logistics of a ceremony most will need to travel to attend. Additionally, the subsequent dispersal of people after Commencement poses a risk if cases arise following the gathering.

Where other universities may have made sufficient preparations ahead of time for in-person commencements with these constraints in mind, it is unfortunately unreasonable to expect that MIT, in the approximately two months left before the scheduled ceremony, can make the same provisions while also guaranteeing the safety of both the students in attendance and the staff necessary to support the undertaking of an in-person commencement.

More importantly, however, having an opt-in ceremony excludes those who cannot choose to attend. There are students in the Class of 2021 who are unable to fly themselves or their families into Boston, whether because of international travel restrictions, financial circumstances, or being at high risk for COVID-19. If the intent was to bring everyone in the class together for one final hurrah, not allowing everyone an equal chance to do so defeats the entire purpose.

It’s true that other schools are planning in-person commencement ceremonies, but each school’s administration should have the agency to make separate decisions, particularly because each school faces different difficulties due to the pandemic and follows different state guidelines. It’s also true that the Class of 2021 is one that will end up sadly overlooked with regard to special goodbyes, but having a commencement ceremony only for those who are privileged enough to attend would be a bitter last impression for the Class of 2021 to leave on MIT. The petition may describe the potential in-person commencement as an “opt-in” ceremony, but many seniors do not have the option to opt in at all.

“Closure” is a word that has been used a lot to justify demands for an in-person commencement, but remember that closure itself is a psychological phenomenon. A ceremony is not going to instantly provide closure, especially if it results in an outbreak. Instead, focus on spending these last two months with those in the MIT community who matter to you, especially the ones you will miss in the coming years. Throw small, safe graduation parties with the people who will genuinely celebrate the years of effort you’ve put into your well-earned degrees.

MIT will still be here for you, for visits, for reunions, and in the many lifetime connections you’ve made during your time at the ’tvte. 

Editorials are the official opinion of The Tech. They are written by the Editorial Board, which consists of Publisher Joanna Lin, Editor in Chief Kristina Chen, Managing Editor Chloe McCreery, Executive Editor Wenbo Wu, and the opinion editor, a position that is currently vacant. Senior Editor Nathan Liang also contributed to this editorial.