Welcome to the era of the Twitter graduation.
East Carolina University graduates got a short and sweet – very short – commencement ceremony when heavy storms moved through the state Friday morning. Faced with a deluge and possibly dangerous winds, ECU canceled its outdoor commencement ceremony at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
Chancellor Cecil Staton conferred degrees virtually in video messages broadcast on social media. In the video, Staton appeared alongside UNC President Margaret Spellings, who was the scheduled commencement speaker.
“Although we are sorry we couldn’t all be together because of the weather, we know as a leader in distance education at ECU, we’re going to do another first today, Margaret. We’re going to confer degrees virtually,” Staton said.
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Then reciting the declaration, Staton made it official with the usual, “by virtue of the authority vested in me” language. “Congratulations, Pirate graduates, we are proud of you.”
Then, Spellings recorded her commencement address, which was to be broadcast on ECU’s social media channels.
University officials were up before dawn, monitoring radar and weather reports. A tornado watch had already been issued, and as the morning progressed, there were a number of lightning strikes within a 10-mile radius, said Bill Koch, associate vice chancellor for environmental, health and campus safety. Following NCAA guidelines for outdoor events, the university would have had to impose 30-minute delays after each close lightning strike.
The prospect of putting thousands of people in an open stadium on aluminum bleachers was too risky, said Koch, who added that he did not recall another commencement cancellation in his 20 years at ECU. “It was just hairy,” he said.
ECU used to have the ability to host two identical graduations inside at the 8,000-person capacity Minges Coliseum. But ECU now has 5,500 graduates. The students and their families would no longer fit into two ceremonies at Minges.
At 8 a.m., one hour before the scheduled start of the outdoor ceremony, ECU called it off, notifying people by text, email and social media alerts.
The graduates appeared to be taking the situation in stride. One posted a video labeled, “Bed side graduation,” in which she turned her tassel while reclining in bed with “Pomp and Circumstance” playing in the background.
Staton explained that tornado watches in the Greenville area made the outdoor ceremony impossible, but he wished the graduates and their families a good weekend. “There’s an old pirate saying, ‘the rougher the waters, the smoother we sail.’”
The ECU grads weren’t completely out of luck. Individual department ceremonies, held indoors, went on as scheduled.