1984: The Year Commencement Almost Moved to the Erwin Center

 

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Campus has been buzzing for days with commencement preparations—roped-off lawns, stage and seating construction, speaker system sound checks—all anchored around the Forty Acres’ most iconic landmark: the Tower.

But 30 years ago, the class of 1984 had to fight to keep their commencement ceremony in front of the Tower when then-UT President Peter Flawn announced that the ceremony would be moved inside the Frank Erwin Center. In the two years prior, the commencement ceremonies had close calls with severe weather, and increasingly large crowds meant more parents were complaining that they weren’t able to see the ceremony. (This was before big screens and simulcasts were set up around campus to accommodate graduates’ families.) The 1983 Centennial Convocation had been held in the Erwin Center, and it went so smoothly that the administration decided that the main commencement should be moved there as well.

“The announcement that commencement would be held in the Erwin Center set off a visceral reaction that galvanized students in a way I had never seen,” remembers then-Student Government President Mitch Kreindler, BBA ’84, JD ’87, Life Member. “Graduation is an emotional milestone for students, and commencement is the celebration of that emotion. The uniqueness, tradition, pomp, and ceremony embodied in a Main Mall commencement simply cannot be matched by a graduation held where the basketball team plays.”

Kreindler and fellow senior Michael Solka, BS ’84, Life Member, mobilized quickly and formed Students for Commencement at the Main Mall (SCAMM), with Solka serving as president. SCAMM set up a table on the Main Mall and collected 1,784 signatures for petition, and they generated multiple editorials to run in the Daily Texan.

In response to the outcry, the University Council convened a meeting to reconsider the decision, and though Kreindler argued their case passionately at that meeting, the measure failed in an unusually close vote of 28-32.

SCAMM began organizing a protest rally, but two days before the rally was to take place, the administration unexpectedly reversed course and moved commencement back to the Main Mall. The students had gotten their wish.

“I remember being mesmerized by the pomp and circumstance and sense of tradition that permeates the ceremony,” Kreindler says. “Being seated in front of the Tower, one of, if not the, primary symbol of the University, fills you with a sense of Longhorn pride that is difficult to describe. And, yes, I remember thinking that the experience could not have been re-created in the Erwin Center. Michael Solka and I exchanged a couple of high fives during that ceremony, recognizing that we had played a role in keeping commencement where it was.”

Solka saved a file with all the press clippings, the signed petition sheets, the transcript from the University Council meeting, and a bag of buttons designed with a red slash running over an illustration of the Erwin Center. His son is now a junior and third-generation Longhorn at UT, and Solka can’t wait to attend his commencement next year.

“Having him at UT has been very special, and seeing him graduate at the Tower, the symbol of the university, will be absolutely thrilling,” Solka says.

Michael Solka with memorabilia from the SCAMM movement. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

 

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