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Flu threat leads to handshake-free ceremony for USF grads

TAMPA — Swine flu means no handshake for you.

That's the message thousands of college graduates, including more than 5,200 at the University of South Florida, will get along with their diplomas this weekend.

USF president Judy Genshaft decided Friday to take the unprecedented step of forgoing the tradition out of a concern for public health. "She has always shaken the hand of every USF graduate," USF spokeswoman Vickie Chachere said. "For her, this is a big deal."

As of Thursday, USF administrators had planned to have hand-sanitizing stations available for graduates before they went on stage and after they left the stage.

But Friday, they decided the risk was too great even for that.

"The president will take photos with each graduate, but the traditional handshake by the president or dean/CEO will not occur during all commencement ceremonies," according to a memo sent Friday afternoon by Cynthia S. Visot, Genshaft's chief of staff.

"This was a hard decision to make," Visot added, "but the well-being of our students and their families need to take priority during this time of uncertainty about the spreading of this strain of influenza."

Hand-sanitizing stations will be provided so graduates can clean their hands after touching the rail as they climb to the stage.

At the Sun Dome, where 4,600 graduates were expected to graduate, administrators expect about 8,000 visitors at each of three commencement exercises today. On Sunday, Genshaft will head to the Mahaffey Theater to congratulate 304 graduates of USF St. Petersburg.

USF isn't alone. Northeastern University in Boston, Central Maine Community College and California State University Channel Islands also have declared ceremonies to be handshake-free events.

At Florida A&M University, where former President Bill Clinton is to speak to some of the 1,200 students graduating Sunday, administrators are going beyond soap and circumstance.

Florida A&M will provide hand sanitizer and surgical masks to anyone who wants one, said Sharon Saunders, the university's executive assistant to the president for communications.

Hillsborough Community College president Gwendolyn Stephenson also won't be shaking hands with students during graduation ceremonies this morning at the Florida State Fairgrounds, a college spokeswoman said. The keynote speaker is Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who also presumably will keep her hands to herself.

Genshaft worried about the possibility of shaking the hand of an infected graduate, then passing a virus on to someone else, Chachere said, "It's very easy to pass the virus down the line in that situation."

Steve Bousquet of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau, Times staff writer Tom Marshall and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Flu threat leads to handshake-free ceremony for USF grads 05/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 7:26am]
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