The Coronavirus Commencements: MBAs Celebrate In Quarantine

Graduation was never meant to be a remote experience. But in this topsy-turvy world, with a full-blown health pandemic a sad reality, there really was no other choice. It is a theme that is playing out at one virtual celebration after another, at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School today (May 17) to one of the first online commencements at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business back on May 1.

Truth be told, many schools are making the most of it, pulling together pre-recorded video segments and surprise elements that have made commencement for the Class of 2020 more memorable than ever. For the Ross graduation, some 4,000 screens tuned in from all over the world to witness the celebration that featured everyone from New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady to Shark Tank investor Daymond John. Ross even published a full color commencement program that was downloadable as a pdf with the names of every graduate.

At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, 22 different faculty filmed personal videos of congratulations and encouragement to the 336 graduates who completed the school’s full-time MBA program. One prof strummed a guitar and sang Elton John’s Rocketman; another pair belted out an acapella verse of the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” At Wharton, MBA graduate Sheyda Bautista-Saeyan, without a cap or gown, recalled the risks her mother took at the age of 18 in leaving her home country of Iran after the revolution to secure a better future for her family in the U.S.


Darden Dean Scott Beardsley during his commencement address

Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett, presiding over his last commencement at the school before departing to become dean at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School, was close to the camera’s lens in a suit and tie from his office. Ross Dean Scott DeRue was an exceptional master of ceremonies for a sprawling celebration from the living room of his home that featured celebrity graduates, prominent alumni, student speakers, and the school’s namesake and primary benefactor, Stephen M. Ross. And Darden Dean Scott Beardsley showed up in full academic regalia behind a massive podium with The Lawn, the core of Thomas Jefferson’s Academical Village at the University of Virginia, in the background. Amy Hillman, dean of ASU’s W. P. Carey School, did her address in an empty tiered-classroom.

And what’s graduation without a little music, even if virtual? At the Ross celebration, the Michigan Marching Band led “Hail to the Victors,” with Ross faculty and staff singing along. Darden’s commencement ended with the Shenandoah, the traditional end of graduation ceremony song sung by the Cold Call Chorus in virtual harmony. The university-wide virtual ceremony at UVA featured both Yo-Yo Ma, who played his cello, and Dave Matthews, who with an acoustic guitar slung across his tie-and-jacket, sang “Singing From The Windows,” his newest tune that refers to the recent phenomenon of quarantined people singing to each other from their windows in Italy and New York.

Sure, there were some rather unflattering webcam shots and a technical glitch or two, but generally, the virtual graduations for this year’s MBA class have been well-orchestrated celebrations that did what every commencement should do: they inspired, motivated and cheered young men and women who put their careers on hold for two years and worked hard through a demanding curriculum to get their degrees.


Columbia Business School Dean Costis Maglaras video send-off to the Class of 2020

Even so, no one can faithfully replicate the pride a graduate would feel as he or she walks across a stage to the applause of family, friends, and classmates. “Community can be reconfigured through technology but only to a certain extent,” conceded Howard Kaufold, vice dean of the MBA program at Wharton, in his virtual toast to the graduating class. “The physical part, study groups huddling together on a project, sharing a meal at a friend’s home, a comforting hug and the camaraderie in a crowd of cheering classmates celebrating competitions, performances, storytelling, and of course graduation, these cannot be duplicated through a screen. And yet, despite these difficulties and disappointments, you persevered and made it to the finish line.”

The vast majority of virtual celebrations at business schools are yet to come, but the early online commencements are also revealing about a school’s leadership, culture, and personality. How schools choose to present their ceremonies may well say more about the institution than the well-polished websites they’ve created for applicants and alumni.

The celebration of graduates from the faculty at Darden stands out, both for the heartfelt support and appreciation of the professors for their students and the personalized greeting delivered by every faculty member. Richard Evans, a finance prof who teaches investments and portfolio management, showed up with his, wife, five children, and a stuffed animal to offer his congratulations.

MBA Class President Naja Edwards addresses her classmates at Michigan Ross’ virtual celebration

Guide to Virtual Commencements for the Class of 2020

Date School Event Link
May 1 University of Michigan Ross School of Business 2020 Commencement
May 11 Arizona State University W. P. Carey School of Business W. P. Carey Convocation
May 15 UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business Commencement
May 15 Washington University Olin Business School Class of 2020 Virtual Graduation
May 16 University of Virginia Darden School of Business UVA Darden 2020 Graduation
May 16 University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management Hail To Thee 2020!
May 17 Carnegie Mellon University Tepper School of Business CMU Commencement
May 17 The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania Celebration of the Class of 2020
May 17 Columbia Business School Class of 2020 Virtual Send-off
May 18 Yale School of Management Conferral of Degrees
May 22 New York University Stern School of Business Class of 2020 Celebrations
May 23 University of Texas McCombs School of Business Commencement
May 28 Harvard Business School Class Day Ceremony
May 29 MIT Sloan School of Management MIT Online Celebration
June 12 UCLA Anderson School of Management MBA Commencement
June 13 University of Chicago Booth School of Business Chicago Booth MBA Graduation
June 14 Stanford Graduate School of Business Celebration 2020
June 14  Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business Investiture 2020
June 19 Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management Kellogg Convocation

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