University announces tentative plans for 2021 commencement, fall 2021 semester

Written By Amanda Andrews, Editor-Elect

Last week, the university announced major plans for how they will proceed with commencement this spring and on-campus learning this fall. 


On Thursday, the university sent a campus-wide email to the students, faculty and staff, declaring an intended shift back to traditional, on-campus operations. However, much of the details are still yet to be determined about what on-campus life and learning will look like. 


“The most important thing is we want to get the message out to our returning students, as well as our new students, that we expect to be fully operational on campus for the fall,” university President Paul Hennigan said. “Exactly how we do that, based on what we did this past year—it’s just not decided yet.” 


The university will continue to offer its online division as it always has, but there has not been a decision made on whether any elements of the learning modalities adopted during the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters will continue to be implemented, including any form of remote classes. 


Additionally, the status of the pass/no credit policy, which has been amended the last three semesters, is uncertain. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic last year, students have been able to apply pass or no credit to the majority of their courses at the end of a given semester. Both passes and no credits do not impact an individual’s grade point average (GPA). 


“There’s already a previously existing pass/no credit policy in the university catalog,” Acting Provost Jonas Prida said. “That one will still be in place irrespective of the blanket statement that we had before.” 


If the university does revert back to the traditional pass/no credit policy outlined in the undergraduate catalog for the fall 2021 semester, undergraduates pursuing a bachelor’s degree can only apply it to a total of eight general college elective courses with the limit of selecting it for “one course during any term.” The policy carries the stipulation that pass/no credit must be selected before the end of the schedule change period. 


When asked about how Point Park will handle large gatherings, such as first-year orientation, career fairs, student organization events and Pittsburgh Playhouse performances, President Hennigan said nothing was set in stone. 


“This whole pandemic has been day to day, week to week, and it continues to be that way,” he said. “Based on all the information that we’re getting from the Allegheny County Health Department, our partners at UPMC, and you can even see it in the national media…there’s just a whole lot of uncertainty remaining.”


Hennigan elaborated that there are tentative plans in place for a convocation ceremony for August 27 of this year and that Pioneer Experience may or may not adapt some of its events as it did this past academic year. 


In its announcement, Point Park cited the optimistic developments with COVID-19 vaccine distribution, falling number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf’s lessening of restrictions beginning on April 4 for this planned shift for the fall semester. 


At this time, Hennigan said that Point Park is following the national guidance that the vaccine is optional and is not a requirement for the campus community at the moment. 


“And we don’t have our decision yet on a policy regarding vaccination at Point Park,” he said. “So there’s no assumption about vaccination at this point in time.” 


Hennigan also mentioned that the school is intending for a “phased approach” to bring back staff members over the summer, many of whom have been working remotely since the pandemic began. For those who have been learning or teaching entirely remotely through the pandemic thus far, there are accommodations that can be made to ease that transition, according to Hennigan. 


Hennigan recommended anyone with questions about the fall plans email [email protected]


Last Friday, the administration followed the announcement of the fall on-campus operations plans with more news: Point Park will hold commencement for 2021 and 2020 graduates for bachelors, masters and doctoral programs. The graduation ceremonies will be spread out over the course of several days and involve recipients walking across the PNC Theatre stage in the Pittsburgh Playhouse to receive their diplomas. The setting is a departure from the university’s typical graduation proceedings at the PPG Paints Arena, but scheduling issues with the number of ceremonies were cited for the reasoning in changing the venue. 


Conservatory of Performing Arts students will film the proceedings, and four videos—one for 2021 bachelor’s recipients, another for 2021 master’s and doctoral recipients, a third for 2020 bachelor’s recipients and a fourth for 2020 master’s and doctoral recipients—will be released on the Point Park website by May 15, 2021. The university said that an official range of dates for the proceedings has not been set yet as they are waiting for RSVPs.


The commencement plans have received a mixed reaction from students, with some taking issue with Point Park not allowing guests at the ceremonies. Taylor Frantz, a senior criminal justice major, said that Point Park’s announced plans were a letdown for her.


“I was very disappointed,” Frantz said. “I was talking to a group of students that are in my classes about the plans for commencement, and we were all pretty upset considering that a lot of the other universities in the area that are even bigger than ours are having a safe graduation for their seniors.”


She created a petition called “Let Point Park University have the option of a commencement ceremony” on Friday and decided to make an Instagram account, helppustudents, to raise awareness for it. As of early on Tuesday, the petition has reached over 350 signatures. 


Not everyone is behind Frantz’s push for allowing guests at the ceremonies, but she said she has received a lot of positive feedback as well. 


“I think there are some people that don’t think it’s a good idea because of the pandemic, which I fully understand, and safety is our priority. But that’s why we just want the option for the people who do want to attend just like how the university gave us the option for the students who do want to attend to come to class, and a lot of people have come back to class,” Frantz said. “And I was shocked honestly at the amount of support that I’ve gotten. I’ve been reading the comments that people have left on the petition and it seems like a lot of students and family do want this to happen, so we just want to see if the university would possibly consider changing their mind or just giving it a consideration after seeing what the students had to say.” 


President Hennigan said that he was aware of the petition but that it was unlikely it would change the administration’s current commencement plans. 


“So the Point Park commencement ceremony is a very lively, very engaging, very happy, lots of hugs, lots of photos event. Not every school’s commencement ceremony is that way, but ours is and that’s part of the unique special nature of the Point Park commencement ceremony,” Hennigan said. “But we can’t do it. We just can’t do it and be safe, so students—even though they want that and we do too—we know what it takes to produce that. We know the logistics, the staffing, the distancing, that would be required; the masking, the touching, no photos, you know, it just goes on and on and on. And sometimes maybe the students aren’t thinking through all of the logistical issues that we have to think through in order to keep everybody safe.”


In defense of their position, Frantz and her supporters have pointed to other universities in the area, such as WVU, Penn State and Slippery Rock, which are allowing two guests per graduate and live streaming options.


“Well, I also know schools that are not allowing guests,” Hennigan said. “So there are schools that are not allowing guests, there are schools that are going to try to allow guests, but the schools that are trying to allow guests have all been pretty clear that guests should be very flexible with their travel arrangements because they may have to change plans at the last minute.”


If coronavirus trends worsened, Frantz said that she would change her mind about wanting the university to hold a ceremony with guests and that safety was the number one priority. 


“I just think graduating college is a huge milestone in everyone’s lives,” Frantz said. “I know in my family, I’m the first generation to go to college, so I think having my parents see me graduate college would be very important to me, and I know a lot of other people feel the same too. It’s a big part of our lives that we want to remember and tell our friends and family and kids about someday.” 


Regarding both the plans for the fall semester and spring commencement, Hennigan said that Point Park would continue to follow the guidance of the Allegheny County Health Department and UPMC in their decisions and that anything is subject to change due to the volatile nature of the pandemic. 


“Well, I think that some of the big lessons [we have learned] are that we have to be very flexible. In a pandemic, we need to be very focused on the mission,” Hennigan said. “And we need to be resilient as a community, which means we all have to work together to do our part, to keep the community safe, which, as I’ve said throughout the year, we’re very appreciative to the students, the faculty and the staff for how they have followed the public health guidelines set forth by the university, the health department and UPMC because our numbers have definitely shown that people took it very seriously, and we’re very appreciative of that.”