Braving the cold temperatures, at least for Louisiana, LSU graduated its largest fall class ever under clear skies during an in person, outdoor ceremony Friday.

LSU Tiger Stadium was used for graduating students in 1990 when Ronald Reagan, about a year past his two terms as president, talked about the fall of communism in his commencement address.

Referring to Reagan's visit, LSU leader Tom Galligan told the 1,966 graduates that this time, they’d have to listen to an interim college president – “a bald one at that” – but that the Fall 2020 class would be remembered for the obstacles put up by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the university to close briefly.

“We are really here,” Galligan said, starting his 14-minute speech, acknowledging how disruptive the pandemic made the final year of the graduates’ studies. “We made it.”

His comments reflected the COVID-19 reality on the graduating students, isolated and sitting socially distant apart on the west side of Tiger Stadium. They and their families were temperature-checked upon entering and wore masks. No printed programs were handed out.

Graduates didn’t walk across the stage to receive diplomas. But their names were displayed individually on the stadium scoreboard throughout the day.

Following the outdoor ceremony, each school held virtual commencements. The graduates will receive their diplomas by mail. But the Fall 2020 graduates will be given the opportunity to walk across a stage to be handed their diplomas sometime in the future after the pandemic subsides.

The graduating class completed their studies with a mixture of in-person and online classes.

“I ask you not to focus on what this pandemic has taken from you, but what you can take from it,” Galligan said. “Terrible times are terrific teachers.”

“The class of 2020 is truly unique. There is no other way to put it,” said LSU Executive Vice President & Provost Stacia Haynie. “These graduates have persevered and faced first of their kind challenges throughout their academic careers.”

LSU’s December 2020 graduating class represents 53 Louisiana parishes, 47 U.S. states and 45 foreign countries. Women made up 53.49% of the class. The oldest graduate is 71, and the youngest are 20.

Of the 1,966 graduates, 1,311 students who received bachelor’s degrees; 486 who received master’s degrees; 34 who received education specialist or graduate certificates; 81 who received a Ph.D.; four who received a Doctor of Musical Arts degree; and 50 who received a post-bachelorette certificate. Also, 21 LSU employees were among those who received degrees this fall.

“Right now, in this very moment, we are taking part in only the second commencement ceremony to ever occur in Tiger Stadium. Only the second — out of 303,” Galligan said, “which means that fewer than 1 percent of all graduating classes have had the great privilege of having their commencement held inside this most hallowed space … This cathedral of college football.”

(Actually, former President Jimmy Carter also gave his May 1994 commencement address in Tiger Stadium.)

Galligan was referring to the May 1990 graduation when Reagan spoke to 1,990 graduates (the traditional Spring events graduate more students than the Fall ceremonies) and 25,000 spectators after a banner protesting his budget cuts to education while in office was removed.

Reagan talked of his planned trip to view firsthand the results of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. He called for the independence of the Baltic republics, which happened in September 1991.

He and his wife, Nancy, also visited the TKE fraternity house to pose for pictures and sign autographs.

President George W. Bush gave the May 2004 commencement address, but it was inside the LSU Maravich Assembly Center. He spoke about the importance of moral honesty and public service.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.