U of T to host 'virtual' spring convocation ceremony, celebrate graduates at in-person events later in year

the ceremonial convocation mace in detail
(photo by Johnny Guatto)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended life around the world, the University of Toronto plans to host a “virtual” convocation ceremony this spring while academic divisions can make preparations to celebrate graduates with in-person events once it’s safe to do so.

On Friday, U of T President Meric Gertler communicated the two-part plan in a letter to students and community members.

He said the virtual convocation ceremony, to be held on or before June 2, will incorporate the core elements of a traditional ceremony, and that the various in-person graduation celebrations to follow sometime after Sept. 1 would include many of the familiar elements, from graduate processions in full academic regalia to graduation speakers.

“The University of Toronto, like its counterparts across the globe, has had to implement unprecedented measures in order to slow the spread of this potentially deadly illness,” President Gertler told U of T News. “But we also recognize that convocation is an important milestone in students’ lives, especially those students who have overcome adversity to pursue an education.

“There can be little doubt the class of 2020 has been forced to demonstrate its resilience in recent weeks and we want to make sure we can come together as a community to mark their achievements.”

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide surpassed one million this week as many countries, including Canada, braced for a surge of patients that threatens to overwhelm local hospitals. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Wednesday that, based on expert projections, “there is very little separating what we will face here in Ontario from the devastation we’ve seen in Italy and Spain.” Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, has told residents that current guidelines – on physical distancing and staying home as much as possible – could be in place for months.

U of T’s virtual convocation will involve both President Gertler and Chancellor Rose Patten. The chancellor will confer the degrees to graduates in absentia and parchments will be couriered to the class of 2020 over the course of the next few weeks following the ceremony.

“We are exceptionally proud of our graduating students,” Patten said.  “We know how important convocation is for them and their families. We also know this is not what they had thought convocation would be like, but we hope the graduation ceremonies to be held at a later date will provide them with a fitting celebration.”  

The ceremony will take place in Convocation Hall and will include opening and closing statements in Latin, the singing of the national anthem and other fixtures of convocation such as the gold-plated silver mace representing the university’s history and authority.

Then, once the threat of COVID-19 has safely passed, academic divisions can proceed to honour the class of 2020 with in-person graduation events that will have many of the core elements of the traditional ceremony, including a graduate procession in academic regalia, congratulatory remarks and graduation speakers.

U of T is just one of several universities, including the University of British Columbia and Harvard University, who have announced they will move to virtual convocation ceremonies and other arrangements.

Christopher Yip, dean of U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, said the faculty is planning to host an event that will bring together graduating students across different engineering streams. About 1,300 engineering students are expected to graduate this spring.

Having graduated from U of T himself with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Yip said he understands the importance of the ritual for students.

“Everyone is learning to adapt, pivot and be flexible and resilient” in the face of the challenges posed by COVID-19, Yip said.

“We’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons. This opens up other opportunities for building community in a different way.”

In a message to graduating students in the Faculty of Arts & Science, Dean Melanie Woodin acknowledged the work and dedication they have put into earning their degrees. She said the faculty is committed to “finding a good and meaningful way” to mark the milestone in students’ lives.

She told U of T News that the Faculty of Arts & Science is working closely with the seven colleges on the St. George campus to organize graduation ceremonies that incorporate U of T’s long-standing traditions and give graduates, as well as their friends and family, a chance to celebrate the completion of degrees.

“We’re hearing a lot from students that they’ve been excited about their graduation for years – even before they arrived at U of T,” Woodin said. “We’ve heard how they and their families have sacrificed, and how the thought of marking this milestone achievement at the end of their degree has kept them going through difficult times.”

She said the faculty’s graduation ceremonies would stay true to U of T convocation traditions and that students would be given enough notice to plan a return trip to campus.

“We’re incredibly proud of our students for their resilience during this difficult time and I’m personally very excited to congratulate each one of them individually at our graduation ceremony,” she said.

At U of T Scarborough, Vice-President and Principal Wisdom Tettey said the campus is similarly working on plans to celebrate graduating students.

“We share the view, which has been clearly expressed by our students, that convocation is a culminating highlight of university experience – one that I know my faculty and staff colleagues also look forward to every year,” he said. “We want to make sure that the hard work, sacrifices and accomplishments of all our graduating students, their families and all those who have supported them are recognized.

“While it is difficult to make concrete plans because of the uncertainty posed by the pandemic, we are actively investigating alternative plans to honour the class of 2020.”

The same is true for U of T Mississauga, where Acting Vice-President and Principal Ian Orchard is looking to organize the campus’s own in-person celebration.

“We know how important a graduation event is to our students, families, friends and professors so that everyone can proudly share such a joyous milestone,” Orchard said. “Over the next few months, we will be looking at various venues and appropriate timing to ensure our UTM community can gather together safely to mark such a significant passage in our students’ lives.”

In his letter, President Gertler thanked U of T students for the way they’ve handled the disruption caused by COVID-19.

“The past few weeks have been extremely difficult for our community, and perhaps especially for our students,” he wrote. “I want to take this opportunity to thank you – for your dedication, your commitment, your perseverance, your support of one another, and the many contributions you continue to make to the entire University of Toronto community.”