Early steps for planning our postponed commencement

To the Class of 2020 and the Williams community,

Following President Mandel’s April 3 announcement canceling in-person Commencement this June, I’m writing as College Marshal to share some early details about our alternate plans. While it’s regrettable that the pandemic forced us to cancel the June ceremony, we’re working hard to organize a graduation that honors your special class in appropriately special ways.

I’ll start by repeating the following very important information from my last message: seniors who have completed graduation requirements will become official Williams College graduates on Sunday, June 7. You can say so on your job and graduate school applications, tell your friends and family members, and go forth into the world a proud Eph as of that day. This is true independent of the fact that we’re not able to hold a Commencement ceremony on that day.

Williams will instead celebrate the Class of 2020 in keeping with the results of the Commencement Survey. Two-thirds of you responded to that survey, with a clear preference (greater than 90%) emerging for an in-person Commencement later, as opposed to a virtual ceremony in June. So we’re going to celebrate in two ways: first, with some kind of special ways to mark June 6-7 as the weekend of your official completion, and then, if at all possible, by inviting you and your classmates back for an in-person ceremony and celebration in 2021.

We don’t yet know the date on which that 2021 gathering will be held, if it can be. No clear preference emerged from the survey. We’re going to aim tentatively for summer, although we’ll need to wait until more is known about the public health picture and our academic calendar before confirming that plan. It most likely won’t be possible to confirm a plan until sometime in calendar year 2021. We’ll let you know when a decision becomes possible, and will also post this information to the Commencement website.

While there were some calls to hold an in-person Commencement this coming summer, I regret to say that’s impossible because of the public health risks.

On the survey, seniors also expressed eagerness to have a Senior Week experience, including the traditional events at Mount Hope. We’ve begun thinking about how a possible gathering in 2021 could weave together elements of Senior Week, Class Day, Commencement, and even Reunion, since the graduates would be returning as one-year alumni. There was also interest in retaining some traditional Class Day activities, such as awards presentations, by holding them in virtual form on Saturday, June 6. Working groups for planning the June activities are now being formed. In the meantime, please send us your thoughts and ideas on what this June’s celebration could look like by submitting them to our comment form. We’ll share them with the committee and class officers as part of the planning process.

I know you’ll have many questions about the details. Commencement is a complex event in any year, and even more so this year, so not all answers are yet known. But to anticipate a few likely ones:

  • It’s unfortunately too early to decide whether the 2021 events would be open to families and the public. We understand how important Commencement is to everyone and want to be inclusive if possible. We’ll look at options once it becomes possible to make informed choices about the event.
  • Diplomas will be mailed to graduates this summer. We’ll be in touch later this spring to ask you to verify your mailing address.
  • Those seniors who didn’t pick up a cap and gown last September will receive one in the future. I appreciate your patience while we work out the details of how and when to get them to you.
  • With a very few exceptions, senior prizes will be awarded on June 6 and 7 and will be mailed soon thereafter.
  • Finally, the students from our Master’s programs, in the History of Art and in Development Economics, will graduate in their own ceremonies this spring. While the joint celebration of B.A. and M.A. graduates is a wonderful feature of a typical Williams commencement, this year is unfortunately far from typical.

As Marshal, I want to thank the seniors for your robust response to the survey and the many thoughtful suggestions you and other community members have already shared. Together, we’ll overcome the challenges of this unusual time and make the Class of 2020’s Commencement a unique and memorable one, for a unique and memorable class.


Jay Thoman ’82
College Marshal and J. Hodge Markgraf Professor of Chemistry
Web: commencement.williams.edu
Email: [email protected]