UA to heat-stricken grads: 'We screwed up'

2014-05-29T00:00:00Z 2014-05-29T12:52:04Z UA to heat-stricken grads: 'We screwed up'By Carol Ann Alaimo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The University of Arizona “screwed up” when it made thousands of recent graduates wait outdoors for hours in near-100-degree heat and failed to make enough water accessible during commencement, officials now acknowledge.

The admission follows more than a week of public silence by the UA on the mishaps that caused some students to miss the May 17 ceremony when they were felled by heat sickness.

At least eight graduates were treated by paramedics for seizures, fainting and dehydration. Several guests also succumbed to the heat and a few were taken to the hospital, campus police said.

The snafus sparked 36 complaints to the UA and its president and more than 100 negative comments on social media sites. Some critics suggested firing those responsible. Others predicted a downturn in alumni donations.

Several found it galling that the UA didn’t issue a public apology, something that finally occurred this week in interviews with the Arizona Daily Star.

“I personally am so sorry and on behalf of our commencement planning team, everyone just feels terrible,” said UA’s Kasey Urquidez, an associate vice president of student affairs who oversees such planning.

As UA spokesman Chris Sigurdson put it: “We screwed up.”

An internal review is underway to look at what went wrong, and has already led to a number of proposed improvements for future years, officials said.

Among the problem areas and potential changes:

Water distribution: The UA provided large thermal jugs of water, similar to those used on construction sites, in the graduate waiting area and small paper drinking cones that hold a few ounces each.

The water jugs may have run dry — the UA ordered them refilled only until 7 p.m., but some students were still waiting past 8:30 p.m. because of a slow-moving processional. It’s also possible some students didn’t see the water jugs, which, according to UA officials, were lined up against one wall with no signs to indicate where they were. Some of the jugs still had water left inside at the end of the night, officials said.

Plans for next year include handing out cold bottled water or a refillable bottle to every graduate, and making water stations more numerous and visible for students and guests.

Excessive waits: Attendees were urged to arrive early and many did, leading to waits of several hours with temperatures in the high-90s. The early arrival setup is being scrapped to avoid a recurrence.

Procession delays. The event started late because it took several times longer for graduates to enter Arizona Stadium than the 20 to 30 minutes officials envisioned. Students were made to use a single entrance, and once inside, often paused to see themselves on the Jumbotron or to take “selfie” photos, creating a bottleneck for those behind them.

Potential fixes include multiple entrance points for graduates, banning selfies during the processional as some other schools have done, or scrapping the processional and seating students as soon as they arrive.

Unexpected revelers: About 4,100 graduates RSVP’d for commencement and more than 4,500 showed up, causing a shortage of chairs and extra crowding in the waiting area. Possible solutions include a ticketing system for graduates and a strict check-in process.

Kelli Dang of Chandler, whose son Jared Dang was among the graduates caught in the chaos, wondered if the UA had become so focused on creating a glitzy graduation event that it neglected basic health and safety.

“I would rather have seen more water and less fireworks,” she said.

Urquidez said her team is still learning how to cope with much larger crowds since commencement was moved to the football stadium last year.

Those who work on graduation planning care deeply about students and are determined to get things right next year, she said.

“We will make sure this never, ever happens again.”

Contact the reporter at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573 4138.

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