160th Commencement will be one for the history books

Historic Francis Olympic Field is being set up to host the university's 160th Commencement ceremonies.
Historic Francis Olympic Field is being set up to host the university’s 160th Commencement ceremonies. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)

An unprecedented academic year coming to a close brings an unprecedented Commencement for Washington University’s graduating students this week.

To allow for in-person ceremonies during COVID-19, the traditional universitywide ceremony in Brookings Quadrangle will be broken up into eight ceremonies over the next two days, May 20 and 21, on Francis Olympic Field.

Of the more than 3,200 undergraduate, graduate and professional students being conferred degrees tomorrow and Friday, more than 2,500 will be in attendance.

National Basketball Association great and social justice advocate Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will deliver the Commencement address virtually to the Class of 2021. For more on Abdul-Jabbar, visit the Washington University Source.

Abdul-Jabbar’s address will be video recorded in advance to accommodate the eight ceremonies and shown on large screens on Francis Field. For the graduates who studied remotely during the spring and for families, friends, faculty and staff who cannot attend in person, the full ceremonies will be livestreamed. To view any of the ceremonies, visit the Commencement website.

In light of the Centers for Disease Control’s updated guidance on public health and COVID-19, released last week, the university no longer will restrict the number of guests each graduate invites to attend. Originally, graduates were allowed to invite only two guests because of limitations on gatherings and crowd sizes in St. Louis County.

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Per guidance from the university’s COVID Monitoring Team and the local health department, both of which advise wearing masks in large group situations, particularly when people’s vaccination status is unknown, the university still will require masking for all faculty, staff, graduates and guests in attendance. 

Chancellor Andrew D. Martin will preside over all eight ceremonies, accompanied by Board of Trustee chair Andrew E. Newman.

Others attending the ceremonies will be Provost Beverly R. Wendland; Grand Marshal John Baugh, the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor in Arts & Sciences; and Honorary Grand Marshal Ralph S. Quatrano, the Spencer T. Olin Professor Emeritus of Biology in Arts & Sciences and dean emeritus of Washington University.

Wendland and the university’s deans will assist Martin in the conferral of academic degrees at the respective school ceremonies. After the conferral of degrees, Martin will deliver his message to the Class of 2021.

The 160th Commencement begins at 8 a.m. May 20 with the McKelvey School of Engineering ceremony and ends at 8:30 p.m. May 21 with the School of Medicine’s ceremony. Each ceremony will be an hour and a half long.

In addition to delivering the address to the graduates, Abdul-Jabbar will receive an honorary doctor of humanities degree.

The five other honorary degree recipients, who all will be recognized virtually, and their degrees are:

  • Christopher S. “Kit” Bond, the former U.S. senator who earned a reputation over his 40 years of distinguished public service as a skilled statesman able to build coalitions and effectively work across party lines, doctor of laws;
  • Richard H. Helmholz, the Ruth Wyatt Rosenson Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago Law School, a distinguished legal and history scholar with an expertise in medieval and early modern law, doctor of laws;
  • Gerda Weissmann Klein, a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and Holocaust survivor who has dedicated her life to fighting racism and intolerance and promoting Holocaust education and human rights, doctor of humanities;
  • Stuart A. Kornfeld, MD, the David C. and Betty Farrell Professor of Medicine at Washington University’s School of Medicine, a renowned physician-scientist, doctor of science; and
  • Shannon Watts, founder of the nation’s largest grassroots group fighting against gun violence, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, doctor of humanities.

Emma Flannery, a candidate for a bachelor’s in both drama and English from the College of Arts & Sciences, will sing “America the Beautiful.” The Washington University Brass Quintet also will perform.

Some of the graduating students have been showcased through stories, images and videos. Visit Class Acts to see a sampling of undergraduate, graduate and professional students who are making an impact through their advocacy, research, creations, or their work to improve equity in health care and efforts to build a stronger St. Louis.

Also among the graduating students is one whose journey from entering Washington University as a first-year undergraduate to earning his degree took 67 years. To read about Henlay Foster’s road to his bachelor’s degree in music from Arts & Sciences at the age of 84, visit the Source.