• Watch a slideshow of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's 2013 graduation.
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LINCOLN — The University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Class of 2013 had expected to be remembered as the first class to graduate in Memorial Stadium.
Instead, this spring's class will be remembered for another reason.
“Now we're the ones that didn't have a graduation,” said Kalby Wehrbein of Plattsmouth, who collected a degree from the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.
Saturday's cold rain squelched plans for an outdoor graduation.
Instead, students were instructed to report to the Hawks Championship Center to pick up their diplomas at a time determined college by college. The formal walk across the stage and diploma handoff were replaced by a less-formal activity in which graduates collected their diplomas at tables set up inside the Nebraska football practice facility.
The change has some students and their families questioning whether UNL leaders could have developed a better contingency plan.
Planning started more than a year ago, UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said, when officials realized that the Devaney Center, the longtime graduation site, would be closed for renovations in May 2013. The future graduation site, the new Pinnacle Bank Arena now under construction, wouldn't be open.
That left Memorial Stadium as the only venue large enough to accommodate a crowd of 14,000 people, Perlman said. The capacity of Lincoln's Pershing Auditorium is 6,500. The UNL Coliseum, Lied Center for Performing Arts and Kimball Recital Hall are even smaller.
While it would have been possible to hold separate and smaller graduation ceremonies for each college, Perlman said UNL didn't want to break its tradition of a single graduation ceremony for all undergraduates. Officials decided to chance the weather and plan a Memorial Stadium ceremony.
As graduation neared and the weather forecast looked ominous, Perlman said UNL officials tried to salvage the ceremony.
On Wednesday they announced an abbreviated ceremony. Students were to pick up their diplomas beforehand, inside the Hawks Center.
On Thursday, after hearing from disappointed parents and students, the plan was revised. To speed the ceremony, students would walk across the stage in no particular order and would get empty diploma covers.
On Friday, with the forecast bleak, UNL announced that it would make a decision at 6 a.m. Saturday whether to proceed with the ceremony at all.
Ryan Clausen said his parents woke up at 5 a.m. to drive from their home near Lindsay, Neb., to see him graduate with a degree in agronomy. He called them at 6 a.m. to tell them that the ceremony had been canceled. They came to Lincoln anyway and stood in line with him.
Clausen is his parents' first child to graduate from college.
“I was really disappointed,” he said. “I stood in line for an hour and a half. By that time, they were really rushing through, so you got one picture in front of a banner, and then you had to get out of the way.”
Perlman said the original contingency plan was to cancel the ceremony in case of bad weather. The plan was modified in response to disappointed students and their families.
Jennifer Verhein, director of graduation services, said she was proud of her staff for quickly adapting and successfully distributing nearly 1,700 diplomas in 4½ hours. Only 54 students opted out of the Hawks Center event, she said.
From her perspective, the response from students and families was, by far and away, positive.
“They appreciated not being out in the weather,” Verhein said. “They were positive because UNL was following through with its commitment to put diplomas in the hands of its graduates on graduation day; they were enthusiastic because of their personal interactions with the deans of the various colleges and the administration, including the chancellor; and they were gracious because they knew everyone there was making their best effort.”
She said she hasn't gotten any complaints. Perlman said Monday that he had received six complaints and one very positive comment since Saturday.
Kristin Witte, an agriculture graduate from Scribner, Neb., said the only reason she signed up for commencement was because it was going to be in Memorial Stadium.
“My parents were a little disappointed, but my dad's a farmer and he's not going to complain about the rain,” she said. “We were just glad we didn't have to freeze.”
She said she wasn't fazed by the way things turned out.
“I got my diploma, which is the whole point of graduation.”
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