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All dressed up and nowhere to go: Otago graduands on the cancellation of capping

Thousands of former students and their families have now been affected by the last-minute postponement of Otago University and Polytechnic graduation ceremonies due to a security threat earlier this week. Among those set to graduate, the news was met with disappointment and disbelief, reports Sinead Gill – and a little relief.

For an event that has caused such upheaval for thousands of Otago graduands and their families, remarkably little is publicly known about the threat to this week’s graduation ceremonies. While the police have only stated that a threat was made against a University of Otago graduation ceremony, a news story reported that the threat made reference to a shooting and was received on Tuesday, the day the royal commission inquiry into the Christchurch mosque shootings was made public. So far, five Otago University and Otago Polytechnic graduation ceremonies have been postponed, with no arrests made.

Otago University Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne speaks to media outside the Dunedin Police Station on December 09, 2020 about the postponement of graduation ceremonies following a security threat. (Photo: Joe Allison/Getty Images)

Laura Anderson and Tessa Robinson both completed a Master of Politics at the beginning of 2020. After the May and August graduations were cancelled due to Covid-19, they thought that this month’s ceremonies would finally close the university chapter of their lives. On Wednesday, they joined the early crowd outside near Otago Dental School, from where the capping procession would march under the unusually blistering Dunedin sun. Just minutes before the procession was due to begin, they heard a shout from someone nearby: both the 1pm and 4pm ceremonies had been cancelled.

“I thought it was a prank or something,” says Anderson, “because my heels were destroying my feet and it’d be so funny to pretend I wasn’t going to have to walk down to the town hall.” It was only when she and Robinson checked the University of Otago’s Facebook page that they realised the announcement was real. “We honestly just had a bit of a laugh,” says Anderson, “because of course something else had happened to an already postponed graduation.”

The general response from the crowd of cloaked graduands, they say, wasn’t fear of the threat, but hesitation and confusion about what to do next. Slowly, phones were pulled out to call loved ones. Robinson rang her parents who were driving into town from the airport. “I felt bad because Mum is super busy at the moment and had just come down for the day.”

“Everyone was in a state of disbelief, really,” says Anderson. “A lot of confused faces, people hearing different tidbits of what was going on and if it was postponed or cancelled, and what that would mean for the immediate ceremonies.”

At the same time, Vivian Griffiths, who was due to graduate with a Bachelor of Laws, was still at a pre-graduation morning tea on campus. He noticed a senior university employee had come to the front of the room to announce something over the PA system. With only a few minutes until the procession was due to begin, Griffiths assumed it was an attempt to get them out the door. He turned to chat to a mate, “then I heard the words ‘postponed’, and thought ‘hang on a second’. At this point it was clear something was up.”

There was about “30 seconds of panic” while people tried to figure out what had been said. “Then all of a sudden the big TV in the business school started flashing orange saying the words ‘graduation postponed’.” As the news sunk in, the absurdity of the situation became clear to the many people in the room, he included, who had already had their graduations postponed twice this year. The third time’s the charm.

Then, almost immediately, “Messenger Chat messages started flying and within 15 minutes a fake graduation was planned,” Griffiths says. It seemed everyone was trying to come up with replacement celebrations. “My old hall Selwyn invited all of the graduates for a picnic and afternoon tea because they felt bad about the graduation, which was very lovely and wholesome.”

Computer science graduand Andy Randell (they/them/their) wasn’t quite as unlucky as Griffiths – this is their first postponed graduation – but was still “very disappointed” not to be capped this week. The first question Randell asked when a friend rang them with the news was “is it serious?”. Randell was an Otago University student in 2015 when a shooting threat against the university was made on the website 4Chan, which eventually was traced back to a user in South America. As in 2015, Randell suspects that this new perpetrator’s true intention is to just “be a nuisance”.

Randell is sad to have missed out on the ceremony, but not as sad as their mum. “My older sister graduated from varsity in absentia, so I was essentially the first child in my family to have a graduation. My mum is really disappointed.”

For many of the graduands The Spinoff spoke to, the hardest part has been the impact on their families. Griffiths says the postponement “visibly upset” his whānau, who had travelled to Dunedin for the ceremony. It was particularly tough on his grandparents. “My parents and grandparents were quite upset by the whole ordeal. My grandparents (84 and 86) both travelled from Queenstown for the celebration, which is a big trip for them to make nowadays.”

Robinson was worried that her parents might be upset too, but they were more concerned with how their daughter felt. “Ultimately [they were] just happy to make it and then we got to all spend more time together anyway. I think for the parents just seeing you in the gown and cap is a big deal.”

Instead of sitting through hours of ceremony, Anderson was happy to enjoy the “sweet relief of flat shoes” and a couple of Pinots with friends and whānau. “It was actually a lovely day in Dunedin,” says Robinson, “so it was much better to be outside having a drink instead of inside a hall for a couple of hours.”.

In the cancellation’s immediate aftermath, many graduands expressed their relief at not having to sit through the notoriously long university capping ceremony. For Anderson, Tuesday’s Māori pre-graduation event felt like the real ceremony, anyway. “It was full of manaakitanga and love and celebration, in a way that I didn’t see when I watched a friend graduate in the university ceremony. It felt like far more of a unique and meaningful reflection and recognition of our efforts.”

A replacement ceremony in 2021 has been promised, but of the graduands The Spinoff spoke to, only Randell plans to attend. Both Robinson and Griffiths are happy with their photos; Griffiths and Anderson say their Māori pre-graduation brought them the closure they needed. For some, though, the stress isn’t over. More graduation ceremonies are scheduled for next Wednesday and Saturday, and there’s widespread uncertainty about whether they’ll go ahead. With just days to go, one student told The Spinoff she didn’t know whether to tell her parents to cancel their flights, or wait and hope for the best.

There is no doubt in these graduands’ minds that cancellation was the best call. As Griffiths points out, students would likely have been far angrier if they’d completed the ceremony only to be told afterwards that their lives had been at risk. Robinson, who ended the day having wines in the sun, is even more philosophical about how it all turned out.

“Just going back to Dunedin, putting on the robe and taking the photos felt like the main part of the graduation anyway.”

Sinead Gill is the 2020 editor of Critic Te Arohi, the University of Otago student magazine.




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