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UI now planning in-person commencement ceremonies after Republican lawmaker introduces bill that would mandate them

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The University of Iowa has reversed its decision to hold only virtual commencement ceremonies for its spring 2021 graduates in an attempt to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and will hold in-person ceremonies.

UI announced on Feb. 3 it would be holding a virtual ceremony. In its statement, the university acknowledged “how much [in-person] ceremonies mean to our students and their families” but said holding virtual events was “the right decision to make now to maintain the health and safety of the entire campus community.”

UI isn’t alone in introducing in-person commencement ceremonies. The University of Northern Iowa said on Monday it is adding in-person ceremonies to its previously announced virtual ceremonies. Iowa State University, which had not previously announced how it would hold its next commencement ceremony, announced on Monday its “intention to hold modified in-person Spring 2021 Commencement celebrations.”

All these announcements follow the introduction of a bill last week in the Iowa Legislature that would have forced all three of the state’s public universities to hold in-person commencement ceremonies “as regularly scheduled in May and in-person during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021.”

HSB 146, which was introduced last Wednesday, also requires all three universities to “at a minimum” allow “each student graduating at the ceremony to choose at least two individuals who shall be admitted to the ceremony.”

While the bill mandates both an in-person ceremony and at least two guest per graduate, it only allows, not requires, “protocols for the control and prevention of COVID-19, as deemed necessary by the institution” for the events.

HSB 146 was introduced by Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a Republican from Wilton and the chair of Iowa House State Government Committee. Kaufmann has not yet made a public statement about the bill, or why he feels it is necessary for the Iowa Legislature to reverse decisions universities have made to ensure the health of their students and wider communities.

A subcommittee hearing on the bill was held on the same day it was introduced.

“They deserve an in-person graduation,” Rep. Carter Nordman, a Republican from Adel and chair of the subcommittee, said during the hearing. “I do believe an in-person graduation is doable based off of what we know about this virus, how to mitigate this virus, and the fact that there are going to be widely available vaccines by May.”

None of the universities mentioned the bill in their statements, but all three are already lobbying against other bills under consideration in the legislature that would change how they function and reduce the independence the universities currently have. Mostly notably, a bill has passed the House Education Committee and is pending in the Senate Education Committee that would make Iowa the first state to eliminate tenure at its public universities.

“If this bill were to pass, many of our best and brightest would leave,” Keith Sanders, a representative of the Iowa Board of Regents told members of the Senate subcommittee considering the tenure elimination bill. “It would make Iowa an educational backwater that no one would want to be associated with in higher education.”

In its statement, ISU released some information about commencement ceremonies for its undergraduate and masters degree students, both of which will be held at Jack Trice Stadium on different days. A ceremony for students receiving Ph.Ds. and Doctors of Veterinary Medicine will be held at the Hilton Coliseum.

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UNI said “three separate ceremonies for bachelor’s and master’s candidates will be held in the UNI-DOME” and is still working on plans for the ceremony for its Ph.D. students.

UI said in its statement on Monday that it “is currently working to develop an in-person option to celebrate graduation for our students and their families.” More information will be provided on March 19, according to the university.


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