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ENMU regents postpone spring commencement; rescheduling TBD

Cancellation would occur if new ceremony can't be held before Aug. 1.


March 22, 2020

PORTALES — Everybody at Friday’s Eastern New Mexico University regents meeting believed spring commencement was an important event for students, their friends and families they didn’t want to see canceled unless absolutely necessary.

They also knew there was no way it would happen as currently scheduled for May 9, and decided after 40 minutes of meeting telephonically to postpone ceremonies with a replacement ceremony to be determined.

By a 5-0 vote, regents agreed to postpone spring commencement at its Portales, Roswell and Ruidoso campuses “until such time as there is a reduced danger to its students, staff and communities.” If it is determined a ceremony cannot be held prior to Aug. 1, the ceremony will be canceled and graduating students can choose to participate in the fall commencement.

There’s no indication of exactly how many students would be affected, as the deadline to apply for graduation is currently March 31. Last spring’s commencement had 795 candidates for graduation, and ENMU officials felt it was reasonable to estimate 2020 numbers would be within 5% of that under normal circumstances.

The matter first became public discussion on Tuesday, when an email announcing a cancellation was sent to students in error. Regents planned to cover commencement ceremonies in their regular meeting April 10, but the emergency meeting was announced when it was clear any delay in a decision affected students and their families the most.

Chancellor Jeff Elwell said a last-minute decision to hold commencement as scheduled would impact students far more than the university, which would simply be ordering the same things it always does on tighter timelines. Students would have an April 17 deadline to order caps and gowns, and that’s just the start of planning issues that would include ordering announcements and coordinating travel with families.

The Centers for Disease Control has already recommended not holding gatherings of 50 or more through May 10, and if state mandates remained in place on large gatherings Elwell couldn’t fathom a ceremony where everybody had to be six feet apart from each other at all times.

“I’m very concerned because I’m following the news so closely,” board president Terry Othick said. “There’s very little optimism that these restrictions are going to be lifted any time soon. Projections go as far out as July. I hope that’s not true, but there’s nothing to suggest things will get better in the next 30 days.”

Scott Smart, vice president of business affairs and part of the university’s emergency planning committee, noted the university was eyeing at least $750,000 to $1 million in losses simply with lost revenues from housing, meal service and the bookstore but that the financial impact was irrelevant compared to basic health and safety.

“They’re dealing with the most difficult time, probably in their lives,” Smart said of students and families. “Given the serious nature of a pandemic, it seems improper to me that we would divert resources to a graduation, as important as it is to higher ed, with all of these other issues we’re dealing with.”

University Police Chief Brad Mauldin said he’s never had staffers come to him so candidly, and the message was that they’ve stood by him through numerous matters but would draw the line at manning a graduation ceremony that puts people at risk.

“Sometimes, what’s in the best interest of public safety is not in the best interests of public officials,” Mauldin said. “I’m worried as this thing is evolving, we may not have a choice in the matter as these directives continue to be handed out.”

Karl Terry, director of the Roosevelt County Chamber of Commerce, said the health and safety of everybody had to come first but he wanted to see if canceling ceremonies could be avoided. He said most people he’s talked to, from students to business owners, were “extremely despondent” about the current situation and he hated the idea of telling Portales businesses to say goodbye to their biggest weekend of the spring with an outright cancellation.

Patterson made the motion to postpone, noting he was also against cancellation.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” Patterson said, “and things are changing by the minute. Every day, we’ve got new directives.”

Patterson said when he graduated from college, it was during a summer semester and they simply wore formal clothes instead of caps and gowns. Everybody knew the ceremony was different from the college’s normal commencement ceremonies, but it was still special to them. A postponed spring commencement, he argued, would be special to its participants and was worth trying to save.

Student Regent Joseph Gergel was the only regent to attend in person, satisfying legal requirements for a telephonic meeting. He said as a graduating senior, he was essentially deciding on his own graduation ceremony. But as a regent, he had a responsibility to make decisions in the best interests of everybody and not just one group. If regents only made decisions in the best interests of students, he proffered, there would never be tuition or fee increases. He felt Patterson’s motion was a reasonable move and would support it.

Regent Lance Pyle commended the emergency planning committee for its work, especially given how fast conditions change minute by minute.

“Let’s use this to think out of the box,” Pyle said, “and as it moves on, find a way to have some type of ceremony.”

He added that ENMU had an opportunity to lead other colleges around the state and beyond on how to best honor students under unprecedented circumstances.

Regent Ed Tatum said the health of everybody is the most important concern, but he had talked with prior ENMU graduates about how special their ceremonies were — particularly people who were the first family member to graduate from college. However, he does anticipate that many students will just move on with their lives after getting diplomas in the mail.


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