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Jennifer Isern receives an honorary doctorate in 2017 before making the commencement address. 

After hearing concerns about changes to commencement this year at the University of Montana, the administration issued a memo of explanation Tuesday.

This year, UM plans to return to the graduation model it used in 2009, according to Main Hall. It will hold two large graduations, eliminate individual department ceremonies, and move commencement from Washington-Grizzly Stadium to the Adams Center.

"While many of these changes address financial constraints, the intention has been to preserve a spirit of celebration and recognition of our graduates' efforts and achievements," said a memo from UM President Seth Bodnar along with the provost and dean of the graduate school.

UM typically spends $70,000 to $85,000 on commencement for costs such as venue and equipment rental, printing and regalia rental, said assistant to the president Rebecca Power in an email. UM has been operating with a lean budget, and Power said the changes are projected to keep total costs under $50,000, or save 30 percent to 40 percent of the expense.

Former President Sheila Stearns directed the changes before she passed the torch to Bodnar last month. In the memo Tuesday, the administration noted one modification from the earlier plan in that UM will hold a separate hooding ceremony for doctoral candidates in philosophy, education, pharmacy and physical therapy.

The memo did not address a hooding ceremony for master's students.

Commencement takes place Saturday, May 12, and as planned, the 9:30 a.m. event will be for the professional schools, and the 2 p.m. one will be for the College of Humanities and Sciences and Missoula College. The ceremonies will rotate in future years.

In the memo to the campus community, the administration encouraged departmental recognition for all graduates.

"We've eliminated the individual departmental ceremonies and instead have encouraged departments to host receptions for their graduates the Friday and Saturday of commencement weekend," said the memo. 

An estimated 3,000 students will be eligible to graduate this year, and an estimated 2,400 will attend commencement, including 280 doctoral students and 450 master's and educational specialists, said Power, one of the chairs of the ceremony.

"This decision allows us to offer a joint celebration that encourages a sense of unity among all students, not just among cohorts," said the memo.


Braden Fitzgerald, ASUM president, said the response to the changes has been "a mixed bag."

Some students aren't excited to be missing out on department ceremonies, and he's been advocating for a format that recreates the personal nature of those events.

"There should be a time where your college can gather and the students can gather with the faculty and thank them and celebrate with the other students in a reception," Fitzgerald said.

Reed Humphrey, dean of the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, agreed the individual school ceremonies are critical for students and families. 

"I'm sure part of the rationale is there's a long history of less than optimal participation at the large ceremony because the students know they have a departmental ceremony to go to," he said.

The current plan now includes a 6 p.m. hooding ceremony on Saturday for doctoral students, and Humphrey said his college is still working on a way to recognize master's students. He also said he's willing to be part of the fiscal solution for his college to ensure the tradition of personal recognition continues.

"From where I sit, it's just so vitally important to be able to honor graduates and their families in a more intimate setting," Humphrey said.

At the same time, he said he hopes the larger ceremonies that honor individual students will turn out to be a win as well.

"The proposal does provide for professional students to be recognized on stage and to a larger audience and be congratulated by the president and others, and I think that is a benefit," Humphrey said.

In the memo, the president notes that each graduate will receive individual recognition at the large ceremony.

"Each student will have their name read, will walk across the stage, will be projected on the screen in the Adams Center, and will shake hands with the president and respective dean," said the memo. "We've hired a professional photographer to take photos of each student leaving the stage and throughout the day.

"Also, families will be invited to join the graduates on the floor of the Adams Center immediately following each ceremony to take photos, and Monte will be there to mingle."

Scott Whittenburg, dean of the graduate school and co-signer of the memo sent Tuesday, said smaller disparate ceremonies on campus dilute the impact of graduation. Students still will experience an intimate event with their department through a reception, he said, but they'll get the benefit of a grander commencement.

"When there's a large ceremony that a lot of people attend with a well-known speaker, the number of people participating is larger, and I think the appearance to everyone is we're a really large institution doing a large ceremony," Whittenburg said.

UM is still working to identify and confirm a commencement speaker, Power said. Summer and fall 2018 graduates will be recognized at an added ceremony in December.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.