After UC Davis commencement halted by heat, students seek answers

Days after UC Davis officials cut short an outdoor commencement ceremony amid excessive heat that sickened dozens of people, students say the university showed dangerous mismanagement, poor planning and a lack of accountability.

Several students reached out to The Times sharing concerns, including significant delays that pushed the June 10 ceremony into the heat of the day, a lack of water and a ban on shade umbrellas and outside drinks.

Radhika Gawde, the incoming president of the Associated Students of UC Davis, said she and other student government representatives have been compiling students’ concerns.

Heat in excess of the forecast may have been out of the university’s control, Gawde said, but communication with students and families has been lacking.

“If it’s held outdoors, I think that’s fine as long as adequate precautions are taken into account,” Gawde said. “All I ask for is communication, if I can be kept in the loop and other members of student government. We’re not asking for Taylor Swift [to speak]. We just don’t want anyone to end up in the hospital.”

For Mairéad Ryan, a UC Davis student who graduated this year, last week’s ceremony felt “like a last straw” after several frustrations during her undergraduate experience.

Ryan and other students said the decision to hold a larger outdoor ceremony combining multiple colleges caused delays even though students started checking in at UC Davis Health Stadium, an outdoor arena with essentially no shade, at 6 am Friday.

Despite the early start, students did not start walking until after 10 am, according to the accounts shared with The Times.

By then, the temperature was 88 degrees, climbing to 90 degrees an hour later.

There were 36 heat-related medical calls and seven people were hospitalized, Julia Ann Easley, a university spokesperson, told The Times last week. Most of the medical calls were for heat-related illness, but they also included a two-vehicle crash, a fall and a person with a rolled ankle.

Ryan’s mother, Jennifer, said the heat and delays in the ceremony had her worried about her 86-year-old father, who has a bad back and is a skin cancer survivor. It was dangerous for him to sit out in the sun unprotected.

She left to get a ride to the parking lot for people with disabilities but found that the drivers were gone, having been told to return after the ceremony ended. A police officer called a driver back, and by the time Jennifer Ryan left with her father and his wife de ella, at least 50 people were waiting behind them.

For some, the commencement problems echoed past health and safety concerns at UC Davis. Ryan said many students had already lost faith in university leadership, pointing to administrators’ initial decision to hold classes amid smoky conditions from the 2018 Camp fire before reversing course, and a delay in moving classes online in 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My goal is not to bash my school, but to hold the people in charge accountable and make the school better for the students still there,” Ryan said.

Paige Petschl, who graduated in the June 10 ceremony, said UC Davis leaders “truly failed the class of 2022.”

“No graduation ceremony should result in medical emergencies due to heat stroke,” Petschl said. “It deterred from the time our class has spent at Davis, which has already been marked by adversity including the pandemic, wildfires and more.”

Petschl and another student who wished not to be named emailed The Times detailing their mounting worries as the heat rose and students in stifling polyester caps and gowns fell ill.

“While waiting to enter, we received no information about what the holdup was, when we would start moving, or really anything,” Petschl and the other student wrote. “Our families were also in the dark, as we were both receiving frantic texts about where we were.”

Students were not provided shade, fans or cold water, and many waited at least 15 minutes for lukewarm water rather than line up to walk in “unbearable” heat, Petschl and the other student said.

Both students, like Ryan, called for accountability from university administrators.

In statements, Easley and UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May said organizers planned for hot weather with cooling stations, misters, fans, water and a livestream in the air-conditioned University Credit Union Center, but accounts from attendees suggested many were not aware of the alternative venue.

Officials also hoped they’d avoid ill effects from the heat by starting early.

However, the temperature “rose earlier than expected,” May said. “We were informed at about 11:30 am that conditions had deteriorated significantly and reached a point when it was unsafe to continue.”

Organizers noted that water supplies ran low with no way to quickly restock, he said, and with many students still waiting to walk, firefighters and other public safety officials ended the ceremony “at once to avoid further crisis.”

“Again, I want to acknowledge the disappointment that some of you have voiced on what should have been a time of celebration,” May said.

Gawde, the student government president, said she started reaching out to administrators immediately after hearing that the June 10 ceremony was cut short.

“I pretty much had two priorities — fix what had happened for Friday’s graduates and make sure Saturday and Sunday went smoothly,” Gawde said.

She said administrators agreed to refund the $58 that each graduate spent for required caps, gowns and tassels. The refund is available to students who didn’t walk June 10 or 11, university officials said.

The June 11 ceremony saw four medical requests, none for heat-related illness, said Easley, the university spokesperson.

But in order to speed up the second day of commencement, administrators originally planned not to have students walk before reversing that decision about 20 minutes before the ceremony. By that time, many students had left, assuming they couldn’t walk — a misstep that could have been avoided if students were included in the planning process, Gawde said.

May said in his statement Monday that the June 10 ceremony did not go as planned.

“While we did our best to mitigate against the rising temperatures on Friday morning, I know it was not enough,” May said. “I apologize for the pain, anger and frustration many of you have experienced and expressed.”

He said officials were working on a survey to gauge the timing of a makeup commencement for students who weren’t able to walk.

This year was the university’s first commencement ceremony at UC Davis Health Stadium, and Easley said it was “highly unlikely” ceremonies would return there next year.

The university plans a comprehensive review of its undergraduate commencements, Easley said.

“While there are different opinions about what went wrong, many questions will be answered after the review has taken its course,” she said. “What we do know is that our graduates deserve a ceremony that celebrates their achievement, and that is what we are committed to providing.”

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