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Universitywide Commencement To Return

June 1, 1998

Carol J. Schlueter

It will be a celebration worthy of the Superdome. On May 14, 1999, Tulane will kick off the commencement season with a super-sized ceremony involving all 11 colleges and schools. It will be the first time in 27 years that Tulane celebrates commencement as one large university family.

Scott Cowen, president-elect of the university, intends for it to be the start of a new tradition. About 17,000 people, from faculty and friends to parents and graduates, are expected for the 10 a.m. ceremony in the Superdome. Leading the show will be Cowen, who will confer degrees, one college at a time, as graduates stand en masse.

To add to the celebratory atmosphere, Cowen will also present his inaugural address and take the oath of office. Afterward, the individual colleges and schools will hold their own separate ceremonies, as has been the custom, to distribute diplomas and honor their graduates. Cowen, who begins his new job on campus July 1, decided it was vital to initiate the new commencement event.

"One of the early things I learned at Tulane University was that there are very few universitywide events to bring the community together," Cowen said. "I believe that to have a strong and vibrant university, you need occasions to come together and celebrate the successes and achievements of the university."

At the same time, Cowen underscores the importance of the smaller, diploma-granting events held by academic units.

"I feel strongly that individual schools and colleges should maintain their traditions. Remember, I'm the dean of a school (the Case Western University Weatherhead School of Management) and I don't think those two things are at odds at all. It only adds to the pageantry of the commencement weekend," he said. The event has the support of both deans of Tulane's largest undergraduate colleges. "I see a lot of advantages," said Tony Cummings, Tulane College dean. "The fact that it's an institutionwide event makes it more appealing to attract national speakers."

Newcomb College supports the idea of a formal, universitywide ceremony for conferring of degrees, especially since Cowen is supportive of individual schools and colleges maintaining their special traditions.

Valerie Greenberg, Newcomb dean, said, "All of Newcomb's ceremonial traditions will continue as always," including receipt of degrees, the "daisy chain," hooding of graduates and return of the 50-year graduating class. "In that case, we welcome the idea of having a universitywide event. It makes a lot of sense to me, especially if it's a return to an earlier practice."

Tulane had a long tradition of an all-in-one commencement program, said Joe Gordon, dean emeritus and university historian. When Gordon joined the faculty in 1954, commencement was held behind Gibson Hall. As the ceremony grew in size, it was moved to Fogelman Arena and later to McAlister Auditorium before shifting downtown to the Municipal Auditorium. That all changed in 1973.

"It split apart then and each college and school had its own ceremony, out of a desire for more intimacy and personal attention to the graduates," Gordon said.

Bringing together the diverse plans of 11 colleges and schools in a brand new event is kind of like planning the Super Bowl of academia, especially the first year, but a committee appointed by Cowen is determined to make the event a success. The new commencement ceremony will be a festive event that will combine both fanfare and tradition, followed by a party for the gathering at the Superdome.

Debbie Grant, director of public relations, is leading the committee in its work. The most crucial task facing Grant's committee, however, centers on logistics: "The law school and the medical school have exams and classes scheduled beyond the May 14 deadline, so we're trying to work that out; we're trying to accommodate all these various schedules and routines," Grant said.

This year, for example, the two largest undergraduate commencement events, for Newcomb College and Tulane College, were held on May 16. The Tulane Law School's commencement was May 22, followed by the School of Medicine on May 30. Medical School seniors are involved in rotations in the spring that take many of them out of town for training, school officials said.

Next year, the rotations end May 28 and the school's commencement date is set for June 5. Resolving these scheduling problems could be challenging. Several members of Grant's committee have been visiting ceremonies at other universities, such as Duke and Vanderbilt, to see how they resolve such issues. Commencement committee member Nita Breckenridge, office manager of the dean's office in the medical school, said, "When we see how they (other universities) handle their medical students at commencement, that might give us an idea of how to fulfill the president's vision."

She added, "The new commencement plan gives both the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and the School of Medicine a chance to be good community members of the university. It is often difficult for us to participate in events on the uptown campus, so we are pleased that an activity of this magnitude will be held downtown."

Also serving on the commencement committee are Susan Anthony, senior program manager in donor relations; Marjorie Cowen, wife of the president-elect; Marian Verlander, senior program manager in the law school; Fran Hollingsworth, senior executive secretary, Newcomb College; Billie Banker, executive assistant to the president; Yvette Jones, vice president of finance and operations; and Earl Retif, university registrar.

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