The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

The purpose of education is to replace an empty mind with an open one... ...Malcom Forbes.

Commentary of the Day - May 29, 2000: A Few Thoughts on Commencement.

Saturday, May 27, 2000 marked the 41st Commencement for California State University, Fullerton, the institution where the Irascible Professor holds his day job.  It also marked the completion of the Irascible Professor's 30th year at Cal State Fullerton, so it is perhaps a good time to reflect on some of the changes that have taken place here during the past three decades.

One of the constants of the past three decades has been the commitment of our College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics faculty to participate in our commencement ceremonies.  Faculty members at Cal State Fullerton are not required to attend graduation, and the number taking part has varied considerably among the seven colleges that comprise our university.  In recent years our university president has attempted to encourage more faculty to participate by having the university cover the rental costs for academic regalia.  However, we take it as a matter of pride that participation in commencement has never been a problem in our college.

Another constant of the past 30 years has been the commitment of faculty members in our college to involving our undergraduates in research.  Although the California State University campuses often are thought of primarily as "teaching" institutions, those of us in the sciences know that our disciplines cannot be taught effectively only in the classroom.  We know that doing science is an important part of learning science.  Through these research experiences we come to know our students much better than we would solely from classroom encounters.  By the time our students graduate we have developed strong bonds, and at commencement we find ourselves almost as excited as their family and friends.

Nevertheless, commencement is both a happy and a wistful time for faculty (as it surely is for the graduates).  We are proud of our students' achievements, but we are sad to see them leave.  We have worked hard to help them learn and grow.  We have seen them finally reach the point where they have the confidence to work independently.  We know that it is time for them to make their way in the world, but we wish that we had a few more semesters to benefit from their fresh views and their enthusiasm.

In many respects the students of our college are much the same today as they were thirty years ago.  There is something a bit special about the young men and women who choose majors in the sciences and mathematics.  They have an innate curiosity about their world, and they are not put off by the hard work needed to wrest the secrets from Mother Nature's bosom.  On our campus we find that there is a marvelous camaraderie among our science and mathematics majors, and that is something that hasn't changed over the years.

But, there have been many changes on campus in the past thirty years.  Our student body is much more diverse now.  Thirty years ago there was a clear majority of anglo students on campus together with a substantial Asian minority (mostly Vietnamese).  Today there is no clear majority group on campus.  Instead the composition of our student body reflects the rich diversity of southern California as we near the beginning of the 21st century.  Thirty years ago women students were in the majority by a small margin.  Now almost 60% of our students are female.  The California State University system is very much the "people's university".  Most of our students have had to struggle for their education.  Many represent the first generation of their family to receive a college degree.  That struggle has grown increasingly difficult in the past thirty years as costs have increased.

Unfortunately, today relatively fewer students are interested in the "hard" majors.  Although our enrollment has nearly doubled in the past thirty years, the percentage of students studying engineering and the sciences has declined.  Today's student is more interested in a major that will assure a high paying job, while at the same time not requiring excess effort.  As a result too many excellent jobs go begging because we are not producing enough graduates with training in engineering or the sciences.

Our graduation ceremonies also have changed markedly in the past three decades.  Thirty years ago we were able to hold a single ceremony at the Anaheim Convention Center for all our graduates.  This gave way to multiple ceremonies spread over the Memorial Day weekend.  These took place outdoors on the Performing Arts Lawn, and were both pleasant and as intimate as a small college graduation.  Several years ago these multiple ceremonies were moved to our new sports stadium (a "white elephant" that had been built for a football program that was canceled in the early nineties).  At this venue both the students and the faculty were far removed from the audience, and the result was a series of commencements that were decidedly uncomfortable.  Students chafed under the constraints imposed by the location, and at times behaved in a less than genteel manner.

Our current president was, at times, greatly offended by the boorish behavior of some graduates who obviously were in various states of inebriation.  He took particular offense at the way some graduating seniors stumbled across the platform on their way to receive their degrees.  During particularly boring graduation addresses some of the more restless degree recipients would bounce beach balls and anatomically correct inflatable dolls around the crowd of assembled graduates..  The president was not at all amused by this playfulness.  Rumor has it that the final straw was the anatomically correct male doll that was batted about by the largely female graduating class from our College of Human Development and Community Service.

Last year the president decreed that all graduations would take place on the same day, and that the day would start with a common ceremony for all the colleges (at that time they were called "schools"), followed by numerous smaller ceremonies.  To reduce the likelihood of drunken behavior, the common ceremony begins at 8:00 AM.  The thirteen smaller ceremonies take place at 10:30 AM and 12:30 PM at various locations on campus.  Both this year and last the 8:00 AM ceremony has been poorly attended, while the individual ceremonies have been packed.  The logistics of this arrangement have been difficult and costs have soared.  (The Irascible Professor has not been able to obtain definitive figures, but has heard estimates ranging from $750,000 to $1.5 million.  Approximately $300,000 of this is covered by a "graduation fee" charged to the students.)   This year nearly 6,700 students were eligible to participate in the graduation ceremonies.  Needless to say, parking becomes a nightmare as the day wears on, and staff are less than happy at having to arrive on campus in the wee hours of the morning to make everything work.

Nevertheless, we all somehow managed to survive.  Our students received their diplomas (actually a receipt telling them that if they meet all the requirements they will be eligible to have that diploma mailed to them), their parents and friends got to see them walk across the platform, and we faculty members again took pride in having guided yet another crop of graduates through the transforming experience of higher education.

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© 2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.