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UNI community asking for in-person graduation ceremony, more than 1,800 sign petition

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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (KWWL) - The University of Northern Iowa has decided to hold a virtual commencement ceremony, but many in the campus community are left confused by the decision. In the announcement, the university said it was to protect everyone during the pandemic.

UNI holds in-person classes and sporting events are allowing spectators. Many are saying the school could have considered other ways to hold graduation before making this decision.

"There's lots of options," UNI senior Mili Saliu said.

Saliu understands the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, but when commencement switched to a virtual event, it confused her a bit.

"When I see these types of things, it just makes me wonder where the priorities are," she said.

The university was able to adapt and have spectators at sporting events, allowing over 2,700 people into the UNI-Dome for the football home opener. This left many wondering why that couldn't be the case for this spring's commencement.

UNI responded to that question with this statement:

The UNI Commencement Committee, which consists of students, faculty and staff, considered what a scaled-down ceremony would look like - graduates required to stay at their seats, limited or no spectators, no processional, no passing of a diploma, no doctoral hooding ceremony and no congregating in the building - as well as the possibility of the event having to be canceled at the last minute.

The committee also considered the health of the numerous UNI employees who would be required to participate in the ceremony in order to make the event possible. 

Statement from UNI

Another concern many seem to have is the fact that sporting events are able to be held, what was the difference for commencement not being able to take place in person at limited capacity?

UNI responded to that question with this statement:

The total capacity for the UNI-DOME is currently limited to 2,600 people. If graduation were moved there, even if we limited each of our graduates to just one spectator, we would already be over-capacity. If we split the event into multiple days/times we would still need to limit the number of guests. 

While the UNI-Dome is a great place to watch an athletic event, the acoustics of the Dome make it very difficult to listen to speakers and to produce high quality audio for a live stream of the event.

Another important distinction is crowd demography. The vast majority of UNI athletics event attendees live in the Cedar Valley. Given that the individuals attending UNI athletics events live primarily locally - and that the university is routinely monitoring the COVID-19 positivity rates in Black Hawk County as well as surrounding counties - the university made the decision to allow attendees at athletics events.

That decision is reviewed on a bi-weekly basis and can be changed with little impact. Commencement involves a much larger number of participants and guests traveling from much further distances.  Some of the people will need to make overnight arrangements.  We need to be able to make a decision early for both our planning and that of the families that want to attend from outside the Cedar Valley.

Due to the number of participants, a commencement ceremony requires a larger number of employees to be involved and increases the health risk to our employees.  As part of NCAA requirements, many of the employees involved in our athletic events are required to follow strict testing and quarantine protocols, that we can not require of other employees.  It is not likely that many of our employees will have been vaccinated by the time of commencement.

Statement from UNI

Following the announcement of the virtual commencement, Saliu created a petition to bring attention to the university's decision. More than 1,800 have signed the petition as of this writing.

"It's actually been really cool and kind of like inspiring to see how many people want to help and try to change the outcome of this," Saliu said.

Many saying there are other options besides a virtual ceremony, such as an outdoor celebration, limiting capacity in the usual venue (the McLeod Center), or even hold a few smaller ceremonies.

The UNI Commencement Committee says they are reviewing any comments received, as well as the petition. They are also considering alternative celebration recommendations from students, faculty and staff in recognizing the many accomplishments of UNI’s graduates.

Saliu plans to meet with university representatives to discuss the petition and any ideas she has in mind.

"I just never really expected to not graduate," Saliu said. "I want to hear their reasoning, and their logic, behind the decision because obviously, I wasn't in the meeting room. I didn't make any of the decisions."

Graduation is the pinnacle of a student’s academic career, and the University of Northern Iowa is incredibly proud and supportive of the accomplishments of our graduates. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we must be mindful of protecting the health of our students, employees and community.

The UNI Commencement Committee submitted the virtual commencement recommendation to university administration after careful consideration. The committee has been receptive to the suggestions brought forward recently by students and families, and is considering alternative celebratory activities that are safe while still recognizing our students’ accomplishments.

Statement from UNI

About 1,400 students are expected to graduate in the spring. The virtual commencement ceremony is set to be livestreamed on May 8.

Students can reach out to the Office of University Relations for more information at ur@uni.edu.

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Diego Hernandez

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