UC Irvine cancels graduation for the first time to protect against coronavirus

Teresa Watanabe
UC Irvine graduates celebrate in 2014. The school has canceled its traditional commencement ceremonies for the first time in its 55-year history.  (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

UC Irvine is canceling its traditional graduation this spring as a precaution against the novel coronavirus, the first University of California campus to call off the iconic ceremony.

“We are saddened to share that the UCI Commencement Ceremonies will not take place in the same way as previous years," Willie L. Banks Jr., the vice chancellor of student affairs, wrote in a message to students Friday.

The cancellation marks the first time in the university's 55-year history that the joyous capstone to a student's college journey will not go on in the traditional way. Banks advised families not to make arrangements to come to the campus for the celebrations, which were scheduled for June 12-15.

The Irvine campus of nearly 37,000 students is diverse, with 35% Asian American students, 23% Latino, 16% white and 3% African American. Nearly one in five students are from other countries, predominantly China. The Irvine graduation draws tens of thousands of visitors to campus from around the country, if not the world.

The other eight undergraduate campuses are expected to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. UC officials at the Los Angeles, Davis, Merced, San Diego, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara campuses said no decision has yet been made about commencement.

But Gov. Gavin Newsom's order banning gatherings of 250 or more people statewide to slow the spread of the disease would bar most graduation ceremonies if he extends the directive past March.

The campus made the difficult decision to cancel the ceremonies because public safety is paramount, UCI spokesman Tom Vasich said Saturday.

"Due to the evolving and rapidly changing pandemic, the health and safety of our community was and is our number one priority," Vasich said. "While we are extremely saddened to cancel commencement, we did not want to put any of our students, families, or communities at risk."

Banks told students that campus officials are "actively looking at alternatives to celebrate our graduates in an appropriate manner. We understand that commencement is an important part of the UCI experience and we want to honor our students while still keeping our community safe. "

He said the campus would be releasing further details in coming weeks.

Bryce Lindsey, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, said that although he won't be able to participate in formal ceremonies in cap and gown and walk across a stage to receive his diploma, he will celebrate at his own parties with family and friends.

"The most important thing is that they'll be there, and we'll be able to celebrate," said Lindsey, who hopes to move on to medical school. "I won't be able to graduate with my friends who I've been with for four years but I know God has a plan."

UC Irvine scored a coup in landing then-President Barack Obama as its commencement speaker in 2014 after an unusual lobbying campaign featuring alumni and students signing postcards and appearing in videos. In one, 7-foot-6 freshman basketball center Mamadou Ndiaye looked into the camera as he towered over a cardboard cutout of Obama, “Mr. President," he said, "we should play ball together.”

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla said he will watch the status of the outbreak over the next month or two before making a decision on graduation ceremonies. The San Diego celebrations, which are scheduled for June 12-14, usually draw from 20,000 to 30,000 people, he said. This year's commencement speaker is CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker.

Khosla said he probably would make a decision by late April.

"The last thing people need now is more bad news," Khosla said. "I don't want to precipitate more anxiety."

Colleges and universities across the country have canceled in-person classes and shifted to instruction online to avoid spreading the infectious disease that has afflicted over 2,600 in the United States and Puerto Rico and led to 50 deaths. In California, there were 247 confirmed cases as of Saturday afternoon, with five deaths.

Campuses also have shut down travel, study abroad programs, campus visits, athletic events and other large gatherings in what higher education officials call the greatest short-term challenge in a generation.