UC Davis grad: Chancellor May responds to heat crisis

UC Davis graduates are seen during ceremonies at UC Davis Health Stadium on Friday, June 10, 2022. The UC Davis graduation ceremony was abruptly cut short on Friday due to extreme heat while that the university told students and families to clean up the stadium and come back on Sunday.

UC Davis graduates are seen during ceremonies at UC Davis Health Stadium on Friday, June 10, 2022. The UC Davis graduation ceremony was abruptly cut short on Friday due to extreme heat while that the university told students and families to clean up the stadium and come back on Sunday.

U.C. Davis

UC Davis added infrastructure such as misters, water stations and ‘cooling buses’ a week before Friday’s botched graduation ceremony, but ran out of drinking water as the event took a long time late and as paramedics responded to dozens of heat-related episodes before noon, University Chancellor Gary S. May acknowledged in a Monday letter to students, teachers and families.

Extreme temperatures brought graduation proceedings to an abrupt end at the university’s football stadium before well over half of the day’s roughly 2,300 undergraduates had had a chance to cross the stage .

Temperatures in Davis hit the mid-90s late Friday morning ahead of forecast highs near 105 degrees in the capital region. Downtown Sacramento reached 104, according to the National Weather Service.

A spokeswoman said the campus received 35 heat-related calls for medical help during Friday’s ceremony and seven attendees had to be taken to hospital.

“The start did not go as planned, and while we did our best to mitigate the rising temperatures on Friday morning, I know it was not enough,” May wrote in Monday’s letter. “I apologize for the pain, anger and frustration many of you have experienced and expressed.”

May said the university in the coming days “will undertake a comprehensive review of events with a variety of campus stakeholders.”

The university is offering a $58 reimbursement for caps, gowns and tassels to those who were unable to walk to graduation on Friday or Saturday, May said.

The chancellor also said UC Davis was working on a student survey to gather feedback on the timing and details of a makeup event.

May said the university’s “original planning” included an option that would have allowed some to watch a live broadcast of the ceremony “from the air-conditioned University Credit Union Center” on campus.

There was no explanation in the letter as to when or why this plan was scrapped.

“We were advised around 11:30 a.m. that conditions had deteriorated significantly and had reached a point where it was unsafe to continue,” May’s statement on Friday continued.

The ceremony began at 8 a.m. and was due to end at 10 a.m., according to the schedule on the university’s website, although May in her letter said it had to end “by 11 a.m.”

“At the same time, our available water started to run out and we couldn’t afford to get more supplies to the stadium quickly enough to serve everyone in need,” the Chancellor said. “Our focus shifted to our students in the field, where it was the hottest and there was no access to shade.”

The lack of shade at the UC Davis Health Stadium was reflected in the photos and video taken at Friday’s event, and in the testimonials of those who attended. A few tarp tents were visible on the soccer field, but a large majority of graduate students and spectators appeared to be fully exposed to the sun.

Student Mairéad Ryan said she and other students lined up in nylon dresses in the scorching sun for more than two hours before they were told to enter the stadium.

“I told one of the organizers I felt like I was going to pass out, but they said ‘just walk across the stage,'” Ryan told The Sacramento Bee in an email last week.

The chancellor wrote that the university had recognized the potential for “very hot” conditions in June and that was the reason for the early 8am start.

A week before the ceremony, university officials “enhanced our infrastructure plan by adding more cooling stations around the stadium, including misters, shade tents, water stations and buses cooling,” the Chancellor’s statement continued.

May wrote that campus fire and environmental health and safety officials “requested that we end the ceremony immediately to avoid a further crisis.”

“We believe we have reached unsafe conditions,” said the AP announcement, which interrupted Friday’s ceremony, in part.

Only just over a third of the students had made it through the stage by then, UC Davis spokeswoman Kat Kerlin said. That means about 1,440 graduate students weren’t able to walk Friday as scheduled, Kerlin said.

The university, in its initial statement on Friday, said students who did not cross the stage that morning would be invited to a separate ceremony on Sunday, although it was unclear whether any attended.

Friday marked the first of three opening ceremonies for the undergraduate. In an update, campus officials said Saturday’s ceremony would be modified by having students’ names read out without running them across the stage.

That plan was changed again at the last minute, May said, to allow the students to walk. With another heat advisory in effect on Saturday, the university moved the ceremony forward by 30 minutes – and speakers scheduled for the day, rather than appearing, recorded their speeches to “be sent to graduates at a later date” , according to a statement from the university.

“We have modified the program for early Saturday morning based on your feedback,” May wrote.

Sunday’s opening ceremony was also moved earlier, with students marching onto the stage beginning at 7:30 a.m. Temperatures were noticeably cooler on Sunday.

Cancellation followed by consolidation

Until 2019, UC Davis held seven undergraduate ceremonies each year – one for each college, all indoors.

May, in a 2019 ad titled “Commencement Consolidation in 2020,” said the university would combine ceremonies from the seven colleges into three, each celebrating about 2,500 graduating students.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the start at UC Davis took place virtually in 2020 and in smaller modules in 2021, postponing the consolidation plan to this year.

Going from seven ceremonies to three would require a different venue, which ended up being the campus football stadium last Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The 2019 announcement also mentioned the Golden 1 Center as an option.

A university press release said the consolidation would “place greater emphasis on our institution as a whole, as one of the nation’s leading public universities,” and May, in a prepared statement, said that it would hopefully attract more “remarkable speakers”. The guest speaker scheduled for Saturday was U.S. Representative Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who received his bachelor’s degree from UC Davis in 1972.

The initial press release announcing the new format told students to “reassure themselves” that the debut would take place in the morning to “avoid the afternoon heat”.

Rosalio Ahumada of The Bee contributed to this story.

This story was originally published June 13, 2022 2:53 p.m.

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Michael McGough anchors The Sacramento Bee’s breaking news reporting team, covering public safety and other local stories. A Sacramento native and permanent resident of the capital, he interned at The Bee while attending Sacramento State, where he earned a degree in journalism.

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