Iowa universities cancel spring commencement, move courses online for semester

UI, ISU residence halls closing amid COVID-19 fears

A graduate waves to the crowd Dec. 21, 2019, during the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Commence
A graduate waves to the crowd Dec. 21, 2019, during the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Commencement Ceremony at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

Students at Iowa’s public universities won’t return to the classroom this spring nor will thousands of those earning degrees walk across the stage at graduation ceremonies as all three campuses take unprecedented steps to deal with the COVID-19 threat.

The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa on Wednesday extended what initially was a two-week stretch of virtual education through to the rest of the semester.

With that change, the UI and ISU campuses are closing most residence halls and dining facilities. The UI said its closures start Thursday.

“Procedures for an orderly move-out and transition policies, including retrieving essential items, will be provided to housing residents via email by Thursday, March 19,” according to a message from UI President Bruce Harreld and Provost Montse Fuentes.

Students who stayed on campus for spring break should prepare to leave. Those who didn’t shouldn’t return until their designated move-out time. The campuses are making exceptions and provisions for students who don’t have alternative housing.

ISU is keeping open its university apartments.

In a message that came just after the Board of Regents declared a state of emergency Wednesday, Harreld and Fuentes shared their disappointment in canceling graduation ceremonies — among other things.

“We know how much these ceremonies mean to our students and their families, but we feel it is the right decision to protect those most vulnerable to the threat of infection,” their message said. “We are in the process of planning an alternative celebration for graduating Hawkeyes and will share additional details soon.”


ISU likewise said campus leaders are working on a livestreamed graduation address in May — and officials said ISU graduates are welcome to walk in a future commencement ceremony in December. UNI similarly encouraged participation in fall 2020 exercises.

“We know these new developments raise questions and concerns, as well as many emotions, including frustration and disappointment,” ISU President Wendy Wintersteen wrote in a campus message. “As you know, these are unprecedented circumstances.”

UI senior Elly Kellner, 21, is among the thousands on track to graduate in May and voiced measured disappointment at the news she’ll miss — at least for now — her commencement.

“It’s kind of a bummer because I feel like those are essential things that you remember for the rest of your life,” she said while driving to Florida with her family for an extended spring break.

‘Not very happy’

In addition to commencement cancellations — which fall in line with Gov. Kim Reynolds’ emergency declaration limiting gatherings of 10 or more for now — the universities announced all other events will be canceled, postponed or conducted virtually for the rest of the semester.

Students across all three public universities were scheduled to resume classes — albeit virtually — next week.

But the UI on Wednesday extended its spring break one week “in order to give everyone additional time to transition to online teaching.”

Now, UI courses will resume March 30 “and will be conducted virtually through the rest of the semester.”

However, ISU and UNI courses will resume virtually as planned next week. UNI announced summer courses will be offered only online.


Students in courses with clinical or fieldwork components have or will receive further instruction in the coming days.

UI senior Luke Barta said he understands the decisions but worries how the changes will affect his ability to learn.

“It was definitely a smart move. It needed to happen,” he said. “But I’m not very happy about it. I don’t do well with online classes.”

He’s considering strategies to help himself concentrate — like changing locations for each class to help him compartmentalize the courses.

“For me, it’s easier to pay attention when you’re sitting in a classroom or a lecture hall and you already have it in your brain that you’re going to be learning this material for 50 minutes,” he said. “My attention won’t be 100 percent on the schooling.”

Campus classrooms will remain available for instructors to record lectures during this period of virtual instruction. In general though, the campuses have asked all employees — excluding health care workers on the UI campus — to work remotely unless they provide a critical function that must be on site.

‘Weather this crisis’

The universities also are locking buildings — with notable closures including libraries, which will continue to provide resources online; student unions; recreation facilities; and entertainment venues like the UI’s Hancher Auditorium.

Student activists representing public and private colleges in Iowa on Wednesday issued an open letter commending the institutions for taking action. But they slammed the decision to shutter dorms and “not provide compensation for student workers.”

“Without access to on-campus jobs and residence halls, many students are left without a source of income and must struggle to pay for rent, food, tuition, and health care,” said the letter from Iowa Student Action, which called on the institutions to waive tuition next year.


“We also need reimbursements for this semester’s tuition, room, and board, and stipends for students who have been forced to stop working on-campus jobs.”

The campus’ leaders Wednesday acknowledged frustration across their communities.

“This institution is a strong one, and we will weather this crisis just as we have others that have come before,” said the message from the UI’s Harreld and Fuentes.

“ ... Many of the changes we implement will be difficult and may leave some disappointed, but our chief responsibility is to the health and safety of the UI and Johnson County communities.”

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