Opinion | Staff Editorials

Changes to commencement shouldn’t commence without student input

On Feb. 11, Spectator reported that Student Government Association President Shivani Vikuntam, BC ’16, will not be speaking at Barnard’s commencement ceremony this year. The administrators behind the decision—Dean of the College Avis Hinkson, Dean of Studies and Senior Class Dean Natalie Friedman, and Associate Dean for Student Life Alina Wong—have stated that this change was made to “provide the opportunity for speaking to more of the senior class.”

However, breaking a 97-year-old tradition and removing Vikuntam from the commencement ceremony should not be necessary to achieve this goal—after all, adding another speaker would only lengthen the ceremony by a few minutes. Furthermore, the administration should not have removed Vikuntam from the speaker lineup without consulting the members of the Barnard senior class first. When it comes to events as important to Barnard students as commencement is, the administration should not act without seeking student input from the very beginning.

Our concerns with the decision are linked to the perennial problem of student-administration disconnect. In September, Vikuntam and Deanna Arpi Youssoufian, BC ’16 and senior class president, were originally informed that neither of them would speak at commencement, a decision that was apparently made without student input. Vikuntam and Youssoufian were advised to draft proposals for alternate speaking arrangements only after meeting with President Debora Spar.

After a series of conversations with SGA, Hinkson, Friedman, and Wong eventually decided that only the senior class president would be guaranteed a speaking role at commencement and that the members of Barnard’s senior class would compete for the remaining two slots.

But if giving more members of the senior class an opportunity to speak is a concern for the administration, why not just open up another speaking position while keeping Vikuntam in the program? Hinkson has said that “three [student] speakers ... is more than many other schools have.” But Barnard’s commencement is Barnard’s. The standards set by other institutions shouldn’t really matter.

It’s worth noting that Vikuntam could technically compete for a speaking slot if she wanted to. But we also question whether the competition proposed by the administration is necessarily the best method of selecting speakers. Besides the McIntosh Activities Council, Governing Board at Barnard, and SGA presidents, no other members of the senior class will be involved in deliberations for the competition.

We appreciate the Barnard administration’s efforts to plan this year’s commencement with the diverse interests of Barnard’s senior class in mind. But we believe that administrative action on behalf of the senior class should always be conducted with input from those whose opinions matter most: the members of the Barnard class of 2016.

The authors are members of Spectator’s 140th editorial board. J. Clara Chan recused herself from contributing to this piece.

To respond to the letter, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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