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Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

Leahy Issues Commencement Announcement, Students and Parents Push Back

On April 13, University President Fr. Leahy announced that the Class of 2021’s Commencement will take place in person on May 24 at Alumni Stadium. Capacity regulations resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic will be in place, limiting attendance to graduates, trustees, senior administrators, honorary degree recipients, and faculty. Parents and family members are not allowed to accompany their graduates in person and will have to watch the event online, which has led to pushback from students and parents alike. Other students have reacted strongly to BC's choice of honorary degree recipients.

Just after the announcement, parent Christine Swanson created a petition opposing the arrangement and calling on BC to reduce the number of administrators and other “non-essential” attendees so parents can attend Commencement in person. Since then, students and parents have circulated the petition on social media platforms like Facebook, garnering 1,165 signatures.

According to Massachusetts COVID-19 Safety Standards, Commencement ceremonies held outdoors are not subject to any capacity limits as long as social distancing (6 feet between groups) can be maintained, with students allowed up to six guests each. The standards also recommend implementing electronic programming when possible. Accordingly, Alumni Stadium, which can accommodate 44,500 people in a normal year, could reasonably host BC’s approximately 2,412 graduate students and at least one guest per graduate and potentially even more if they divided students between several ceremonies. They would still adhere to more general state guidelines, which limit outdoor arena gatherings to 12% capacity. At Alumni Stadium, this would be 5,340 spectators.

Notably, other Boston schools are allowing their students to bring guests to their commencement events. For Northeastern University’s graduation at Fenway Park, which can typically host up to 37,700 spectators, approximately 4,000 graduates will be divided between two morning and afternoon ceremonies and permitted one guest each. 

Especially after a senior year complicated by the pandemic, graduating students and their loved ones believe their requests are well-founded. One parent, Lanette Doherty, commented beneath the petition that her son is the first in her immediate family to graduate from college, which is a “momentous occasion” she hopes she’ll be able to attend. Others argue from a financial standpoint that parents often “foot the bill” for their children’s tuition and deserve a seat in the stadium, with some even offering to pay for a ticket to attend.

While many are concerned about the guest policy, others have unearthed what they view as incriminating details about honorary degree recipient Christine Montenegro McGrath, CSOM ‘87. On April 13, the Young Democratic Socialists of Boston College posted on their Instagram (@ydsofbc) calling for McGrath’s removal from graduation due to her affiliations with Mondelez International, which is currently under fire for child slavery allegations. McGrath is currently the vice president and chief of the Global Impact, Sustainability, and Well-being platform within the company, which owns popular chocolate brands such as Oreo, Cadbury, and Milka.

In February 2021, DC-based human rights organization International Rights Advocates filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Mondelez International and other chocolate giants Nestle, Mars, and Hershey for alleged child trafficking and forced child labor on cocoa plantations. The organization filed the claim on behalf of eight former child workers from Mali, who say they were forced to work without pay on cocoa plantations in Côte d’Ivoire. They now seek damages for forced labor and compensation for unjust enrichment, negligent supervision, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. 

One should note that within her division of the company, McGrath spearheaded the Cocoa Life program, which aims to tackles issues like climate change, gender inequality, poverty, and child labor. The program has specific efforts to “address the risk of child labor and help protect the rights of children in the global supply chain.” At present, these efforts include a $3 million investment in early childhood development and access to education in Côte d’Ivoire, as well as the implementation of Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation Systems (CLMRS) in all Cocoa Life communities in West Africa by 2025. Thus far, no CLMRS has been established in Côte d’Ivoire, where trafficking is rampant, while 447 CLMRS have been established in Ghana.

Few students have openly taken issue with BC’s choice of Commencement Speaker: NYT opinion writer David Brooks, who is known for his conservative-leaning political commentary. At an institution like BC, this choice is hardly unsurprising, especially with a Board of Trustees comprised of CEOs and partners of companies like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase & Co.

McGrath and Brooks’ fellow honorary degree recipients include President and Executive Director of the Pine Street Inn Lyndia Downie; Fessenden School administrator, former BC football captain, and NFL player Sean Guthrie ’01, M.Ed. ’14; and former Boston College Vice President for Human Resources and Senior Advisor to the President Leo V. Sullivan, M.Ed. ’80, P ’89, P ’90.