Community Conversations: Commencement Edition

Commencement 2021 is the first large in-person campus event since the pandemic began.

Watch the June 9 Community Conversations webcast with Provost Joseph Helble, President Philip J. Hanlon '77, Trustee Chair Laurel Richie '81, and E.J. Kiefer, executive director of Conferences and Events.

As preparations get underway for this weekend's commencement celebration—the first large gathering on campus since the pandemic began—President Philip J. Hanlon '77 and Trustee Chair Laurel Richie '81 joined Provost Joseph Helble for this week's Community Conversations webcast to look back on one of the most difficult years in Dartmouth's history and ahead to a return to regular operations this fall.

Executive Director of Conferences and Events E.J. Kiefer, who oversees commencement planning and logistics, also took part in the conversation, which was moderated by Justin Anderson, vice president for communications.

As President Hanlon and Richie expressed the joy and optimism that this year's commencement represents, they acknowledged that the past year has been marked by grief.

"The most wrenching part of the past year for all of us has been the loss of four students—four bright lights within our campus," Hanlon said.

"Their loss has affected all of us very, very deeply," said Richie, whose term as board chair ends this month. "I want to thank our entire community for what they have lived through, struggled through, and persevered through this year."

The pandemic presented Dartmouth with interconnected challenges this year, Hanlon said, including limiting the spread of COVID-19 on campus, protecting the community's mental health while doing so, and continuing to teach and conduct research under pandemic conditions.

"All of this with no playbook and no advanced warning," Hanlon said. "It has been a year of challenge like no other that I've experienced."

Nevertheless, the prospect of commencement is heartening, he said. "I am filled with hope and confidence in the future knowing we are sending out in the world so many talented, passionate Dartmouth graduates. "To me, it's an incredibly happy and uplifting event."

Richie will be in Hanover to represent the trustees at Sunday's celebration. "Having not been able to gather last year—not that we ever took it for granted, but we will never, ever take it for granted," she said. "This is a concrete symbol of the possibility of reopening."

Looking ahead to fall, Hanlon said, "What I'm most excited about is our return to all the things that made Dartmouth special all along—great classes taught by dedicated faculty who connect closely with their students. Our student artists will be performing again. We'll be playing sports, doing outdoor programs. All the things that have always made Dartmouth so special will be back."

Kiefer said that despite the challenges of planning commencement during the pandemic—which required the Committee on Commencement to develop nearly a dozen scenarios to anticipate shifting safety protocols—this year's event in Memorial Stadium will feel more similar to past years than not.

"We'll have a ceremonial stage, and all the pomp and circumstance," he said. Students and guests will have excellent views of the stage, and will be able to see the ceremony on two Jumbotron screens. Seats are assigned, and attendees are asked to bring their own water bottles—and to wear masks.

In the coming year, the priority will be on rebuilding the sense of community that the pandemic interrupted, Hanlon said.

"I think students have felt the loss of a full Dartmouth experience more intensely because their time with us as students is so short. We need to do everything we can over the next year to rebuild the experience that they have, and as much as possible restore what they may have lost."

Much of this focus will be on helping the Class of 2024 make up some of the traditional first-year bonding events that the class had to forego this year—from a new candlelight vigil and matriculation ceremony to plans for Dartmouth outdoor trips. The Office of Student Life is working with the Class of 2024 Class Council to get student input on other opportunities throughout the year—"including through sophomore summer," Hanlon said.

More broadly, he said, "We're looking to knit the entire community together with more casual events on the Green," including bringing back winter term ice skating, and ramping up the 'Take Your Professor to Lunch' program. Plans are also underway for an oral history project on the impact of the pandemic on the Dartmouth community.

"If we've learned one thing from this past year, it's just how important culture and community are to the DNA of Dartmouth," Richie said. "My wish is that every Dartmouth student leave with the strong connections and bonds that come from what Dartmouth uniquely offers."

While some COVID-19 restrictions will still be in place during the summer term, Helble said the summer will be a transition toward the more normal operations students, faculty, and staff can look forward to in the fall. While remote classes are still necessary to accommodate the 20% of enrolled students who will be studying remotely, Helble said, "We will have more classes in person. We will have more faculty meetings with students in person."

Among the other topics discussed in this week's show:

  • Helble announced that 70% of both students and employees who live on or access campus have reported completing their COVID-19 vaccinations. Because of this, Dartmouth dropped the outdoor face-mask mandate last week for campus property. The town of Hanover's mask mandate remains in effect for now, and masks are still required on town property.
  • Other campus restrictions, such as the mask mandate indoors and for large gatherings such as commencement, will be relaxed once the reported vaccination rate reaches 80%, he said.
  • Starting in the fall, travel restrictions will be loosened to permit vaccinated community members to travel internationally to approved countries without prior clearance, and to un-approved countries with clearance. Vaccinated and unvaccinated community members will be able to travel domestically without special permission, and some domestic group travel will be permitted, even if some group members have not yet been vaccinated.
  • Also beginning in the fall, a revised community expectations statement about Dartmouth's COVID-19 policies will be in effect. Details about the new statement, which reflects student focus group input, will be distributed in writing in the coming weeks.
  • Asked about student housing in the fall term, which is expected to be tight because of limited off-campus opportunities and students returning from gap years, Helble asked for patience as administrators work through the problem. "We know that there is going to be demand that exceeds supply," he said.
  • COVID-19 testing protocols are shifting to one test per month for vaccinated people on campus and twice per week for unvaccinated people. Helble expressed gratitude to everyone who has made the testing operation work "smoothly and seamlessly" this year, and encouraged community members to thank the testers the next time they are in Leverone Field House. "I want to remark how remarkable it is that this complicated operation that didn't exist a year ago has become completely unremarkable," he said.

Community Conversations is a live production of Dartmouth's Media Production Group and the Office of Communications that airs on selected Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. The next broadcast is scheduled for June 23.

For the most recent information on Dartmouth's response to the pandemic, visit the Dartmouth Together COVID-19 website.

Hannah Silverstein can be reached at hannah.silverstein@dartmouth.edu.