Graduation Gaffes Lighten the Moment

PHOTO: Georgetown University accidentally misspells university on its commencement book.Leigh Finnegan, Georgetown Voice
Georgetown University accidentally misspelled "university" on its commencement book.

Commencement ceremonies are typically about the graduates, but the spotlight sometimes gets misdirected.

As with any live event that requires elaborate staging and months of planning, schools are accustomed to various flubs and missteps. Here are some of the most amusing from the past two years.

1) Congratulations 'Univeristy' Graduates

When Georgetown University students arrived at their graduation ceremony in Washington, D.C., this weekend, they found a gold-embossed commencement booklet; and a letter of apology from the university.

"We regret the error on the cover of this year's commencement program," read the letter, signed by assistant provost John Q. Pierce. "We recognize that the tradition of excellence we celebrate today far exceeds this oversight."

The school offered to send a corrected copy to anyone who requests it.

Georgetown had accidentally printed "univeristy" on the cover of the booklet.

2) ASU's Accidental Brush Fire

Gaffes are bound to happen when planning a huge event such as graduation.

"It really is organized chaos in a way," said Melissa Werner, director of university ceremonies at Arizona State University.

After its commencement ceremony earlier this month, the school set off fireworks at the school's stadium in Tempe, which is located between two buttes covered in sagebrush.

Fireworks aren't unusual for ASU; they're a football game fixture. And that's why the fire department is always at the ready. When a stray ember landed on the eastern hill near the stadium, a fire sprang up quickly. The area wasn't easily reached by fire extinguishers, but the firemen knocked it out.

"We were so happy for the breeze that night until we found the ember blew into the wrong place," said Werner, who added she had barely even heard about the brush fire before it got squelched.

"In our situation, we were so grateful we had our plan in place," she said.

Werner co-founded the North American Association of Commencement Officers more than a decade ago, a group that meets once a year to discuss past gaffes and how to prevent them, much like the Georgetown University mistake.

"Those are the kinds of things when commencement planners get together they say, 'I can't believe this happened this year,'" Werner said.

Whatever the error, when all is said and done, commencement event planners "never want to make a mistake that will affect the spirit and celebration of the day," Werner said.

3) Don't Forget to RSVP

Seventy-five Kent State University students attended one of the school's commencement ceremonies from a nearby auditorium this month after several students failed to RSVP to the event. The Ohio school didn't have enough seating in the school's Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center where the diplomas were being handed out.

"This was a first in Kent State's history -- we have used this method and never had a problem," Ken State University spokesman Bob Burford said. "We were completely unprepared for the astounding number of people who showed up without going through the process of RSVPing."

The university is now evaluating how to prevent this from happening in the future, he says.

"Our commencement planners use the RSVP count, plus they factor in the expected number of those who will attend but not RSVP," Burford wrote in an e-mail to "The number of those who did not RSVP this year -- and attended -- was significantly larger than ever before, and more than our planners had accounted for."

The students who sat in the auditorium still walked across the main stage to receive their diplomas.

Graduation Gaffes

4) It's UCF, Not USF

Students at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla., booed their graduation speaker Alex Sink last year after she referred to the school as USF, which is the University of South Florida. At the time, she was Florida's CFO and a gubernatorial candidate.

"You have received an education at one of Florida's finest universities. Everywhere I go I assure you ... I hear about the important role of UCF," she told them. "Not only just here in the Orlando area but all over our state because of the research you're involved in, because of the many fields of study that are offered at USF."

The audience of more than 1,300 graduates booed.

"Did I say USF? That's really bad," Sink said. "I'm going to boo myself."

Sink had called the university by its full name earlier in her speech, and it was only in the abbreviation of the name that she misspoke.

But then it happened again.

"I'm a big fan of USF," she proclaimed.

And again.

"I am so honored to be here today to celebrate in the awarding of the two hundred thousandth degree at US ... uh, UCF."

The crowd erupted in laughter.

"I think I better just get off the stage right quick," she added.

She told WFTV's 11 p.m. news, "I had a little slip of the tongue and I caught myself and we all laughed about it."

5) The Wrong Wheaton

Perhaps the most infamous graduation flub happened last year at Wheaton College in Massachusetts when commencement speaker and "Today" show co-host Ann Curry accidentally referenced Wheaton College alums from a different Wheaton College.

She mentioned evangelist Rev. Billy Graham, movie director Wes Craven and former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert. But they all attended Wheaton College in Illinois.

Curry quickly wrote an apology letter.

"I am mortified by my mistake," she wrote, "and can only hope the purity of my motive, to find a way to connect with the graduates and encourage them to a life of service, will allow you to forgive me."

College spokesman Michael Graca accepted the apology, the AP reported. "We thought it was heartfelt and genuine," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.