Commencement, As It Develops

By Killian Walsh '14

A meeting was held Wednesday March 26th in the CAPA Symposium to discuss the Class of 2014’s commencement weekend. Held during the afternoon free period between 12:00 and 2:00, the meeting’s goal was to address senior students’ frustration at having commencement dinner split between the student center and the dining hall, effectively isolating a portion of the graduating class from the rest of their peers. This irritation was first articulated through an online petition which garnered over 200 signatures and prompted President Silver and the college’s administration to call the meeting. The session was attended by just over forty seniors and several members of the administration, all of whom engaged in a passionate and involved conversation about the event.

The main concerns of the senior class, beyond what would seem a requisite unity at a time when separation bears heavily on the mind, also included what form the weekend would take, the financial particulars of the event, and the reasons for why changes needed to have been made. What seemed clear was that President Silver, Dean Roche, and Nancy Mitton understood the importance of commencement weekend to Bennington seniors, and the Bennington community at-large. Rumors that the trademark commencement tent was too expensive, or that Aramark’s corporate regulations prevented food from being served or prepared outside were denied directly by President Silver, although no reason was given for why the change had been made in the first place.

It seems fair to consider that commencement weekend might have been reevaluated due to the arrival of our new president, the change in leadership precipitating a change in operation. During the meeting both Mariko and David Rees, who is the Senior Vice President for Administration and Planning, emphasized the flexibility of tradition at Bennington, mentioning that the current iteration of commencement was itself only a relatively recent development. Despite this they made certain not to undermine the importance of the event and its current trappings, with President Silver asserting, “This really is your day.” Rees and Silver also emphasized the robustness of programming over the weekend as compared to unnamed peer institutions, not unlike the robustness of the upcoming inauguration weekend as compared to peer institutions.

There was also confusion over the term “sustainability,” which has found its way into much of campus discourse this term in the same way that “ethos” had last term, and appeared in President Silver’s email response to the student petition two times. The term was construed by some students as a euphemistic way of expressing Bennington’s near-constant financial struggles, and by others as an obfuscatory buzzword that was intended to distract from the central points of the conversation. It turned out to be neither, and referred environmental sustainability, which President Silver recognized as a core value of the Bennington community. She pointed out the costs that are incurred when pursuing a sustainable course of action and how concessions might need to be made if we are to stay committed to this ideal.

Although the conversation itself was positive and respectful, many students still remain disgruntled or confused by the school’s way of handling commencement this year. It’s apparent that President Silver, Dean Roche, David Rees, and Nancy Mitton are committed to working with the senior class on devising the best possible experience for graduation, but many questions remain about the choices made and impending decisions, and the window to address them is rapidly closing as we move from March into April. The BFP encourages seniors and underclassmen alike to share their feelings on this issue with us and foster a productive dialogue in the coming weeks.