Why So Virtual?

It wasn’t an easy decision, and we hated to make it. But here are the reasons why in-person Commencement this year would be inadvisable for Columbia.

April 16, 2021

Many members of the Columbia community have urged us to reconsider our plans to hold a virtual Commencement ceremony and small-scale, in-person Class Day events. These calls have increased in recent days following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that in-person graduation ceremonies would be allowed starting on May 1.

But here at Columbia, many of the factors we took into account in making our decision, have not changed. Most important, the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on our surrounding community remains of great concern. We are facing a situation where the number of cases remains high, new variants of the coronavirus are spreading fast, and many still are testing positive for this virus. Additionally, while more and more people are being vaccinated, we have not yet achieved the desired vaccination level. Although the university is working with individual schools to offer small gatherings, “watch” events, and celebratory photo opportunities, our public health experts remain steadfast in their conviction, based on the data at hand, that an in-person Commencement would be unwise.

Columbia News reached out to Donna Lynne, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the University COVID Director to help clarify the constraints and dynamics that are at work in this decision.

Q. What informed the decision to have a virtual Commencement?

A. First, planning for Commencement begins months before the actual Commencement date. We made the decision at a point in time when New York COVID-19 positive rates were equal to those in May 2020—a peak in the 2020 crisis. Second, even as of late March this year, New York State was one of the top five states for rate of increase in COVID positive cases and the state with the highest per person rate of hospitalizations.

Q. Why are other venues opening up, such as sports arenas?

A. Some of these openings quite frankly confound many public health experts. We have seen other states and countries “reopen,” only to experience a surge, and then another shutdown. As one of the largest institutions in New York City, we think it is prudent to take all reasonable steps to avoid exacerbating an already tenuous situation.

Q. Why is the situation in New York so concerning?

A. Unlike many schools, we are located in a high-density urban setting. In New York City, positivity rates still hover between 6.5% and 7%, and we are seeing more than 50 deaths every single day.

Q. The governor of New York changed the guidance for Commencement size; why aren’t we following this?

A. We are holding our 2021 Commencement earlier than many New York State universities, as part of our decision to introduce a third summer term to the current academic calendar. The new state guidance was issued April 10, too late to make major changes to our Commencement plan. But we are optimistic that smaller class gatherings, scheduled to be held around the university, will give graduates the opportunity to celebrate this important milestone.

Q. Are other urban schools doing the same?

A. I would look to NYU, which is similar to Columbia in size and urban location. As of now, NYU is holding a mass virtual event in late May, supplemented by small class gatherings.

Q. Can you explain how the fact that so many graduating students are not on campus played a role in the decision to go virtual?

A. As students are all too aware, 95% of our classes are remote and only a small number of students are present on campus. But we have every expectation that we will be able to restore normal campus life in the fall.