Penn will not move the date of the Class of 2021 commencement, which falls on the Jewish holiday Shavuot, despite a petition that garnered over 1,500 signatures urging the University to do so.
In an email sent to nearly 40 seniors who identify as Orthodox Jewish on March 24, Vice President and University Secretary Medha Narvekar and Vice President of Social Equity & Community and University Chaplain Chaz Howard stated that the University cannot move the date of commencement due to logistical hurdles. Eligible Orthodox students who choose to attend the ceremony in person will be provided with accommodations, and the event will be recorded for families to watch at a later date.
University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy referred The Daily Pennsylvanian to Narvekar and Howard's statement in response to a request for additional comment.
“The details and logistics of executing an event of this scale have been set for well over a year and it is not feasible to move the ceremony even without other in-person school ceremonies in place,” the email, which is also posted on the University’s commencement FAQ website, reads.
On March 9, Penn announced that, due to the pandemic, all graduating seniors will attend a single in-person commencement ceremony at Franklin Field. Guests are not permitted, and the event will be live-streamed for family members to watch remotely.
Shavuot, a two-day holiday that begins on May 16, typically entails going to religious services and forgoing the use of technology. As a result, Orthodox students who do attend graduation will not be able to take photos or go to restaurants after the ceremony. Similarly, their families will not be able to watch the video recording until two days after the ceremony when Shavuot ends.
The University’s email to the Orthodox graduating seniors stated that the Orthodox students who choose to attend commencement will be provided with “alternate arrangements” such as completing a verbal, rather than electronic, COVID-19 symptom check at the entrance of Franklin Field.
Penn's official response, emailed to several Orthodox students, came nearly one week after several student leaders — including College and Wharton senior Lizzie Youshaei, College senior Yoni Gutenmacher, and December 2020 Wharton graduate Simcha Stadlan — emailed the University on March 18 requesting that the date be moved. Now, students are disappointed at the University’s refusal to do so.
“We thought that we had a good argument, we thought that we rallied enough support, and we thought that the administration would be at least open to hearing us, and this email shut the conversation down,” Stadlan, who is still deciding whether or not to attend commencement, said.
Penn previously moved its 1975 commencement ceremony to accommodate Orthodox students who observed Shavuot. Today, students cite this historical precedent as evidence that Penn could feasibly move the ceremony – particularly because the details of the event were provided to students just weeks ago.
Penn's decision to email only Orthodox students — whose contact information was provided to Penn by Gutenmacher — rather than make a public statement, also drew criticism from students, who saw the move as a way to avoid public scrutiny.
“The University chose to respond very privately, and I think this is something that really warrants a public response,” Gutenmacher, a former DP reporter, said. “The University has not publicly acknowledged the difficulties that Jewish students face.”
Some students, like Stadlan, said they wish that the administration took more accountability, rather than providing “superficial” accommodations at the ceremony. Gutenmacher added that some Orthodox students are still urging the University to permit a small, in-person ceremony for Orthodox students the day before commencement, but they are pessimistic that the University would allow it.
“I wish the administration took some responsibility for the original making of the date, and not necessarily apologized, but acknowledged the fact that they made this conflict in the first place. I think they completely overlooked that,” Stadlan said.
Penn’s decision to hold commencement on Shavuot initially came as a surprise to students, with many claiming that it seemed “out of character” for a University with a large Jewish population. About 17% of Penn’s undergraduates are Jewish, according to Hillel International.
The decision also sparked outrage from alumni, who took to the petition comment section to express their frustration. Some, including 1975 Nursing graduate Carole Lerman, said they will stop donating to the University altogether in protest.
In a year where students have already faced significant hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Youshaei called on the University to make commencement accessible for all.
“The reality is, if any group of students is affected by this, no matter how small, I think it’s our responsibility to care about them. Especially in a year like this, where seniors have had everything taken away from them, finally giving them graduation and then telling these students that [their] families not only can't attend but can’t even partake remotely, is devastating.”