Rutgers says no to live graduation — but yes to football game with spectators
Rutgers University's decision in February to hold its commencement ceremonies virtually for the second year in a row because of the pandemic is being called into question after a football game was scheduled just four days later in the same stadium.
"Public health concerns related to the ongoing pandemic continue to make it unwise for us to plan for large in-person gatherings this spring. And unfortunately, it is not feasible to create appropriate, smaller ceremonies in a safe and equitable way," Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway said in his February announcement.
At the end of April, Gov. Phil Murphy lifted restrictions at outdoor venues to 50% capacity effective May 10 as the number of positive cases and hospitalizations have dropped dramatically. Rutgers' SHI Stadium in Piscataway, with a capacity of 52,454, would be allowed to seat 26,227.
Rutgers football is scheduled to play its Scarlet vs. White game on May 20, according to an April 23 message from the Rutgers Athletic Department. The school will sell 5,000 for the game.
"A week ago we got an email saying that Rutgers is holding their spring football game on May 20 with 5,000 students," graduate student Liz O'Donnell of South Brunswick told New Jersey 101.5 after starting a petition. "How can you hold a football game with 5,000 people but you can't hold a graduation ceremony?"
In a letter to the school community this weekend, Holloway explained that the main commencement in New Brunswick typically attracts as many as 40,000 attendees, including thousands of graduates, and requires months of planning for staging, lighting, sound and seating.
"By contrast, the requirements for a football scrimmage with 5,000 spectators in a 50,000 seat stadium are minimal. Holding the game can be done with very little preparation," Holloway's letter says.
Stayla Elacqua, a social work student from Flemington, said the decision about commencement was understandable given the uncertainty where the coronavirus pandemic would go as vaccines became widely available.
"Obviously, health concerns are a priority and we were all OK with that. We accepted it and we were going along with our virtual ceremony," Elacqua told New Jersey 101.5. "It recently became an issue when they made that announcement regarding the football team and people in the stands and family and friends cannot be in those same stands and let us celebrate our graduation we worked hard for."
Elacqua thinks that the university could have waited a bit longer to make its final decision.
"I understand why they did it. It's such a huge university and you don't know what will happen a few months down the road but perhaps if they'd waited a little bit longer maybe they could have seen the trajectory," Elacqua said.
O'Donnell acknowledges the challenging logistics of changing graduation plans less than a month before the May 16 commencement. Instead, she wishes the school would consider postponing the commencement.
"Our goal is to hopefully have a graduation sometime over the summer, which would be awesome. I just want to walk across the stage with my cap, my gown, my mask and get my degree," O'Donnell said.
Holloway, during a budget hearing on Monday, told Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Burlington, that it was one of the hardest decisions he had to make during his tenure at Rutgers and said he has heard from many who are angry at his decision.
Holloway said during the hearing held the same day Murphy expanded outdoor capacity at venues that while some of Rutgers' smaller schools could have had an in-person commencement, especially with rising vaccination rates, it would be unfair to the university's other larger schools, such as the main undergraduate school in New Brunswick.
He also said that given the size of Rutgers, having "safe" ceremonies would mean two straight weeks of commencements three times a day, which is something he said the school doesn't have the capacity to do.
"I hate the decision but I feel like I had to make it," Holloway said.
Most other New Jersey schools, including Princeton, Rider, Monmouth, Stockton and Rowan universities and TCNJ are planning in-person ceremonies that will adhere to whatever limits are in place at the time of their respective ceremonies.