The first of many celebrations
Commencement 2020 was like no other.For starters, the ceremony ran just seven seconds shy of 16 minutes—surely a speed record for a University that has, over 149 years, developed multiple Commencement celebrations and traditions. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony took place virtually as a pre-recorded event to be live-streamed or downloaded. And the “star” alumni- to-graduate ratio hit an all-time high.
It began with a promise: Chancellor Robert J. Jones told viewers that “while we are currently planning an in-person ceremony worthy of what our graduates deserve, we wanted to let them know just how proud we are.” He added, “We wanted to be the first to say, ‘Congratulations!’ before we meet in person again.”
Traditions were kept in innovative ways. UI System President Timothy Killeen conferred the degrees while standing alone on the Quad. Viewers were invited to join in an online rendition of Hail to the Orange. Student speakers talked about the impact of an Illinois education, not from a podium but from a cyber-media platform. In lieu of a Commencement speaker’s words of inspiration, a voiceover told graduates, “You’ve redefined what it means to be part of the Illinois family, and we’re so excited to see how far you’ll go because we’ve already seen how far you’ve come.”
An unexpected plus was the line-up of noted alumni who offered congratulations and issued challenges. On hand were Pro Football Hall of Fame member and former Fighting Illini linebacker Dick Butkus, ’65 AHS; three-time NBA All-Star and former Fighting Illini basketball player Deron Williams; 17-time Paralympic medalist Tatyana McFadden, ’13 ACES, EDM ’19; Academy Award–winning filmmaker Ang Lee, ’80 FAA; Black Entertainment Television co-founder and hotel/resort CEO Sheila Johnson, ’70 FAA; PayPal co-founder and Affirm founder/CEO Max Levchin, ’97 ENG; autism advocate and author Temple Grandin, phd ’89 aces; C3.ai founder, chairman and CEO Thomas Siebel, ’75 LAS, MBA ’83, MS ’85 ENG; and Obama Foundation Chief Engagement Officer Michael Strautmanis, ’91 MEDIA,JD ’94.
Larry Gies, BUS ’88, founder and CEO of Madison Industries, challenged the new grads to “use your incredible Illinois education and our powerful alumni network to create meaningful change in the world.”
But perhaps television star and celebrity woodworker Nick Offerman, FAA ’93, best summed up the extraordinary circumstances that led to this most unusual of U of I Commencements. “I don’t know if you’ve seen the news,” he joked, “but those of us who graduated before you are having some trouble. So, we could really use your help.
“Find the good work that needs doing; roll up your sleeves and get to it. Hats off!”