Vowell headshot

Sarah Vowell.

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Montana State University is moving its big annual convocation to welcome thousands of freshman students to an online-only event, rather than holding it in person at Bobcat Stadium.

The university announced Wednesday that the convocation, featuring best-selling author Sarah Vowell, would be livestreamed for students and the public on Aug. 27 at 7:30 p.m. at montana.edu/convocation.

MSU’s news release made no mention of the fact that just two weeks ago, the university announced it would move freshman convocation from its usual indoor venue in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse to the open-air Bobcat Stadium so students could be socially distanced.

“Sarah made some great recommendations to us,” said MSU spokesman Michael Becker, which will allow students more opportunities to meet with her.

MSU felt confident that holding convocation in the stadium would be a “low-risk event,” Becker said. But he added that moving online gives the university the “opportunity to take some stress off already very hardworking staff members.”

Asked if holding convocation online would undercut MSU’s message to students that college can be an in-person experience this fall, in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, Becker said that’s not the case.

“There’s no comparison between a complex, one-time, 3,000-plus-person event in the stadium and classroom experiences, many of which will be quite small,” he wrote in an email.

“MSU’s preparations for the fall semester have altered nearly every aspect of the university, all with the aim of providing the in-person college experience that students want while minimizing the risk from the virus.”

Vowell, who graduated from MSU in 1993, has written seven nonfiction books, and her “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States” is MSU’s 2020 summer read.

The new convocation plan is to have MSU President Waded Cruzado conduct an interview with Vowell and discuss her book on Lafayette and the sharp divisions that have characterized the United States from its birth.

The two will take questions from students, who can submit them ahead of time.

Vowell will also appear as a guest lecturer in sections of University Studies 101 courses, where her book will be assigned reading for freshman students.

“Sarah’s generosity and creativity are going to make this a convocation unlike any other,” Cruzado said. “Considering the unique situation this semester, she wanted to further engage with students throughout the term.”

This will be MSU’s 15th freshman convocation. The events are usually held in the Fieldhouse with the marching band playing, students cheering and a sense of celebration, all intended to make students feel they belong at MSU and reinforce the idea of staying to graduate.

Vowell has been an opinion columnist for the New York Times, a contributing editor for the public radio show “This American Life” and also voiced the character Violet in both of Pixar’s “The Incredibles” films.

“Students attending convocation as a streaming event provides an opportunity for even more of them — and more members of our community — to experience that formal welcome to the academic year,” Becker wrote, “which we think is a positive thing.”

The Gallatin City-County Health Department said it continues to work closely and coordinate with the university, but the decision to move convocation online “was ultimately MSU’s decision.”

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