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What’s Behind The Girls’ High Graduation Fuss?

A long-time university president, who has presided over countless commencements, reflects on upholding and changing traditions

What’s Behind The Girls’ High Graduation Fuss?

A long-time university president, who has presided over countless commencements, reflects on upholding and changing traditions

Recently, local and national accounts of two Philadelphia High School for Girls graduates not being handed diplomas were an active topic of conversation in the Maimon household. As a former university president who has presided over innumerable commencements, I commented that the denied documents were probably not actual diplomas. My husband, Mort, who served in the 70s and 80s as the chair of Girls’ High English Department — and had the responsibility for preparing student commencement speakers — tried to remember if the diplomas were actual.

As it turns out, students receive a blank, rolled-up paper on stage. They get the actual diploma backstage after the ceremony. Whether the document is real or not, the moment when the graduate grasps the symbol of completing one phase of life and moving on to another is iconic.

In a 175-year tradition, Girls’ High graduates carry flowers and wear white dresses, rather than caps and gowns. For all those years, the ceremony has been heavy on decorum and rules. Family and friends in attendance must stay silent, even when they hear their graduate’s name. Students must process sedately across the stage.

On June 9, this last rule became the controversial aspect of commencement protocol. One student broke decorum by dancing the Griddy across the stage. An audience member laughed. Another student flipped her hair as she walked. Onstage, both were denied receipt of a rolled-up diploma surrogate.

Many Girls’ High alumnae support Principal Lisa Mesi’s action, while saying they are “open and available to work with the school community as they continue to examine and evolve our traditions.” It’s important for Girls’ High to take the alumnae up on their offer and to involve them immediately in a planning committee made up of students, parents, faculty, administrators, and community members. The goal should be to design a commencement ceremony reflecting past, present, and future traditions and, most importantly, honoring students’ achievements, collectively and personally.

As someone noted to me this week, there is reason to embrace moments of celebration, when kids make it through, despite attending schools with few frills, still struggling with pandemic setbacks and often living in neighborhoods with frequent violence.

All true. But, as anyone who has planned a commencement knows, the situation is complicated.

As Girls’ High works toward creating a balance between celebration and decorum, I’d like to offer some points to consider from 24 years of experience in leading commencement ceremony plans:

Carefully considered rules are essential and must be enforced

But let’s put an emphasis on “carefully considered.” At my commencements, ushers strictly and permanently confiscated air horns, for example. We also learned from unfortunate early experiences that we had to prohibit a mass exodus of family members — and graduates — as names were called. In addition, we enforced early and on-time arrival for the ceremony (not seating late audience members until the graduates procession was completed). We got lots of literal push-back on that one!).

We did not prohibit cheering as students’ names were read. Maybe we should have. Sometimes the cheering for one name would drown out the announcement of the next. And that wasn’t fair. We tried to compensate by emblazoning each graduate’s name (correctly spelled, of course) on a huge video screen. Universities (even underfunded ones like mine) have the resources to do that. Not so with most high schools.

We did not prohibit students from dancing across the stage, but we had faculty ushers available to move students along at a steady pace.

We did not allow family members to crowd the stage to take photos. Instead, we hired a photographer, at no charge to the graduates or their families, to take photos of each graduate receiving, in our case, the diploma cover. The graduates and I had places marked on the stage for this photo op, and nearly all the pictures captured a life-long memory.

Design the ceremony to be completed in under two hours

After two hours things inevitably fall apart. My commencement staff would actually watch videos of past graduations — in the way that coaches watch game reels — to find ways to speed up the pace. Commencement day involved a morning ceremony for two of our colleges and an afternoon ceremony for the other two. At each, 900 students walked across the stage. I’m proud to say that after a few early glitches, we always concluded the ceremony in under two hours.

The trick is to keep speeches brief and to a minimum. The student speaker was the highlight. All the rest of us delivered short remarks. I set the example by announcing that my commencement speech would be the briefest presidential speech in America. And it always was. We limited honorary degree recipients to two minutes with two goals: Thank the university and congratulate the graduates. I have to say that I heard the best two-minute speeches in my life fromAmerican presidential historian Michael Beschloss and former Phillies center fielder Doug Glanville.

Accurate, clear announcement of students’ names is the most important Commencement element

It’s essential that those reading the names practice. Many names are difficult to pronounce. We asked students to pronounce their names on voicemail so the graduation announcer could practice.

Make new traditions, but respect the old

I inherited the tradition of asking graduates to turn their tassels from right to left, but I changed the invocation to welcoming them into the community of “educated women and men.” I established the tradition of the platform party lining the hallway and cheering the graduates as they started their procession into the auditorium. My successor created the tradition of singing Lift Every Voice and Sing in addition to the signing of the Star Spangled Banner.

Girls’ High can look forward to the community-building activity of examining old traditions and creating new ones. Congratulations to Girls’ High graduates Hafsah Abdul-Rahman, Saleemah Burch (both of whom received their official diplomas backstage at the Kimmel Center), to all Girls’ High and Philadelphia high school graduates (You made it!), and to high school and college graduates everywhere, as you begin your next promising chapter. Welcome to the community of educated … citizens.

Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is an Advisor at the American Council on Education. She is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her long career in higher education has encompassed top executive positions at public universities as well as distinction as a scholar in rhetoric/composition. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.


Hafsah Abdul-Rahman, a 2023 graduate of the Philadelphia High School For Girls. Photo from Facebook.

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