Bobcat Statue - cancelled commencement

The MSU Bobcat statue presides over an empty campus Friday in Bozeman.

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Graduation ceremonies have been canceled this spring throughout the Montana University System to keep students, families and university employees safe from the coronavirus pandemic, but alternative celebrations are in the works.

The announcement that many students and families had been dreading came from Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education for the Montana University System.

“After close consultation with the Board of Regents and campus leadership from across the Montana University System, I am directing our campuses to cancel in-person Spring 2020 Commencement events,” Christian posted on the system’s website.

“I share this directive with great sadness, as Commencement is a right-of-passage for our graduates as well as their families and friends.”

Christian held open the possibility that campuses will find alternative ways to celebrate the milestone, either by postponing graduation ceremonies to a later date or using technology to find ways to honor graduates.

Montana State University President Waded Cruzado announced Friday that the Bozeman campus will do both.

Graduates of the class of 2020 – the largest class in MSU history – will receive personal invitations to attend in-person winter graduation ceremonies Dec. 19 at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.

And spring graduates will also receive invitations to a “fabulous Virtual MSU College Celebration” that each college will hold remotely for its graduates the second week of May. In advance of that virtual graduation, MSU plans to send every graduate a free “commencement box.”

“This wonderful treasure chest will include the MSU diploma cover, a unique Blue-and-Gold tassel exclusively designed for the members of this class, MSU balloons for graduates’ own “balloon drop” moment, and other surprises,” Cruzado wrote.

“We have many exciting ideas involving social media, sharing of photographs, and other memorable initiatives to mark this MSU Spring Class of 2020 for what it is: a historic and unforgettable group of extraordinary individuals.”

Just how virtual graduation will happen is still being worked out. Tracy Ellig, MSU vice president for communications, said MSU has the technical capabilities to make it happen.

“We’re going to figure it out and it’s going to be awesome,” Ellig promised. “We have 34 days to come up with a fabulous plan, which we will.”

Nearly 2,300 students had been expected to graduate May 9, he added. Commencement has never been canceled in MSU’s 127-year history.

Cruzado wrote that while the decision to cancel commencement doesn’t come as a surprise, given federal and state orders limiting the size of gatherings, encouraging social distancing and staying at home, it is still “a sad confirmation of what we were anticipating.”

“Graduations are a symbol of why we exist as institutions of higher education: They mark the moment when we give a student a ticket to success in life,” Cruzado wrote.

“We love graduations at Montana State University and … over the years we have invested a considerable amount of time and creativity to make sure that our graduation ceremonies are among the best on the planet.”

MSU posted a schedule for each college’s virtual commencement.

On Thursday, May 7: Honors College, 7 p.m.

On Friday, May 8: College of Education, Health and Human Development, 3 to 6 p.m.; College of Engineering, 3 to 5 p.m.; College of Business 5 to 6 p.m.; and Gallatin College 4 to 6 p.m.

On Saturday, May 9: Arts & Architecture, 3:30 to 5 p.m.; College of Letters & Science, 11 a.m.; and Graduate School, 9 to 11 a.m.

Schedules for the colleges of Nursing and Agriculture will be announced later.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.