Why the U didn't want other sites for CLA graduation

You may have caught Tim Post’s article Friday about how the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts is canceling its fall commencement ceremony.

The cancellation has caused a bit of a stir among U watchers, and people are asking: Aren’t there any alternatives to the Northrop Auditorium, which because of renovation won’t be large enough to hold the several thousand who’d attend the graduation?

My editor, Bill Wareham, was curious about several other possibilities, so I contacted the college to get some more info about the Williams Arena, the Sports Pavilion, Ridder Arena and the Field House.

What kept those off the list of possibilities?

Cost, capacity and problems bringing those facilities up to federal standards of access to the disabled, spokeswoman Tessa Eagan and Lisa Murphy Filhart, assistant to the director for student services, told me in an e-mail and on the phone.

As a benchmark, a ceremony at Northrop costs the college $25,000 for the labor involved in the ceremony — ushers, paramedics, sound and stage personnel, etc. Filhart said.

Their view of the alternatives:

  • Williams Arena. With a seating capacity of more than 14,000, Williams was the most popular choice of a replacement, would cost another $25,000 – $30,000 and still provide an “inferior experience.” Eagan said the committee that studied Williams criticized it for “poor sight lines, acoustics, and disability access.”  Also, the in-house sound system proved inadequate, so the college would have to contract an outside sound-system vendor.

The rest of the venues were too small, she wrote, requiring three or more ceremonies to handle all of the students and their guests.

Although only 600 students or so graduate, many tend to bring a handful of guests along, which can raise the crowd to about 4,000 people.

“It’s definitely not just about students,” Eagan said. “It’s about having their families there to celebrate with them.”

She wrote it would be “difficult and unfair to limit our graduates to only bring 1-2 guests to celebrate their achievements.”

It’s not just seating that officials must consider. Eagan said the college requires “staging room” where graduates, faculty and others can line up, and that proved too much for the buildings.

Her comments on other buildings:

  • Sports Pavillion. This has a capacity of 3,000 seats plus the stage. (Don’t forget the room required by the stage.) But a portion of those seats have “very poor site lines” because of the curved wall of the building, and Eagan said it had “multiple access/disability issues.”
  • Ridder Arena. This arena holds about 2,500 seats plus stage — but would have ice on the floor at that time, which is the same issue that Mariucci Arena has.
  • Field House. This has 500 built-in seats and room on the floor for 1,500 more. The Field House also suffers from poor sight lines, bad acoustics, and disability issues.