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The University announced plans for an in-person commencement and named award-winning poet Reginald Dwayne Betts as commencement speaker, along with environmental health activist Catherine Coleman Flowers and former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb ’94 as honorary degree recipients. The announcement came in an all-campus email on Thursday, March 4. The original commencement date was May 30, but the University is currently looking at other options in the last week of May to account for pandemic-related developments. 

Like most events in recent times, the status of commencement is dependent on the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, both on a local and national level. The University is including the status of vaccine distribution for students, faculty, staff, and all commencement participants in this calculation. 

“I’m working hard on the vaccine front to try to get as many people [on] our campus [vaccinated] as they become eligible…and we’ll see how that goes over time,” President Michael Roth ’78 said. “We’re working on that. I think we can do it safely.”

Poet and memoirist Betts will give the address at commencement this May. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He has published several books includingFelon: Poems” (2019), winner of the American Book Award and an NAACP Image Award. Betts is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Law at Yale University, where he also holds a J.D., in addition to an MFA from Warren Wilson College. Much of Betts’ work focuses on reforming the criminal justice system. He spent eight years in prison after being tried as an adult at the age of 16. 

“Betts often gives talks about his own experience, detailing his trek from incarceration to Yale Law School and the role that grit, perseverance and literature played in his success.” Betts’ website reads. “In addition, he has given lectures on topics ranging from mass incarceration to contemporary poetry and the intersection of literature and advocacy.” 

Environmental health researcher Flowers will also be honored at commencement. Flowers is the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, an organization working to address poverty and develop sustainable solutions for rural communities. She received a MacArthur Grant and authored the book “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret” in 2020. 

Twenty-third FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb ’94 will be honored alongside Coleman this spring. He is a physician who has worked in public health throughout his career. He currently serves as a resident fellow at the think tank American Enterprise Institute, where he researches the FDA, medical innovation, pharmaceuticals, and health care policy.  

“The recipients were chosen on the basis of their significant contributions to the social, environmental, and public health of the United States,” the University’s commencement website states. 

While guests will certainly be restricted in some way at Commencement, the extent to which this will occur has not yet been determined. Roth recognizes the importance of students sharing this experience with family and friends, but he remains concerned about the safety of pandemic travel and inviting large groups to the University’s campus. Roth noted, however, that a decision about guests will likely be made in April. 

“I understand that for a lot of people, part of what makes it meaningful is that person from your family or your friend who’s there to see it,” Roth said. “I’m not sure about that yet. It depends on factors. Most of our students are not from Connecticut, they’re from all over the place. So, will it be safe to travel then? That’s why we haven’t made an announcement…I think that we should wait to see how safe that is before making a decision about guests. ”

While the University plans to gather students in-person for commencement this May, the ceremony will not look the same as other years. The administration is currently exploring hybrid options to limit the length of commencement and to ensure the safety of everyone involved. 

“There’s a team of people working on how to [best] choreograph a commencement so that it’s meaningful, but it probably won’t be as long as they typically are,” Roth said. “That may mean parts of it will be recorded [for students to] have as a keepsake, and parts of it will be live.”

Student disappointment at the cancellation of last year’s Commencement was a motivating factor for Roth when he made the decision to host an in-person ceremony this year. 

“I’ve been doing commencements [for] a long time now, more than 20 years, and so I’ve [become] a little jaded,” Roth said. “I didn’t think commencement was that important to other people, because for me, it’s getting through it, [making] sure nobody had [anything] bad happen. Last year, when cancelling commencement, I was very moved to see how many students were devastated, and not because they wanted to shake the President’s hand or something like that, [but] because they wanted to be with their friends, their grandparents, or their parents. It was a much more meaningful ritual than I had realized, and that’s on me.”

This year’s reunion celebrations, which typically take place during commencement week, will be cancelled due to the uncertainty and threat of the pandemic. Vice President for Advancement Frantz Williams ’99 expressed his sadness at this cancellation but hopes to shift to a virtual format in which alumni can engage.

“The Office of Advancement is working with reunion committees on alternate plans that will include a series of interactive virtual events,” Williams wrote in a Feb. 2 email to the classes scheduled to have their reunions in 2021. “Our hope is that more people will be able to participate and engage with classmates virtually than if we held reunions on campus this year.”

The University will share more updates about commencement on the Reunion and Commencement website and plans to share more detailed information at the end of March. 

“Right now, the way it looks, if current trends continue, we will be able to give the senior class a meaningful in-person acknowledgement of their achievements of graduation.” Roth said.


Orly Meyer can be reached at omeyer@wesleyan.edu.

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