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May 4, 2001
Volume 38, No. 16


Coordinating commencement: Leaving nothing to (pomp and) circumstance
Arkema faces challenging term
University never runs out of steam thanks to this underground crew
Employee gifts of time, money benefit local groups
InSite: Allergy roundup

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Coordinating commencement: Leaving nothing to (pomp and) circumstance

About 1,300 seniors will participate in the College of Liberal Arts commencement next week at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Photo by Rex Bavousett.

If you think hosting a party can take a lot of preparation, imagine trying to organize several receptions for thousands of guests of honor, plus their friends and families. You’ve got to think about decorations, music, refreshments, seating, parking … It’s not an easy task.

This is exactly what Julie Fell does three times a year. Fell, assistant registrar, oversees the graduation analysis area and coordinates commencement. Next week, there will be nine ceremonies in four days. There are about 3,800 students depending on Fell, her staff, and a variety of other campus departments to create a festive and memorable atmosphere for their graduation.

Fell and her assistant, Diane Graber, start preparing for May commencement in the middle of February, updating forms and sending requisitions for commencement services. They know time is running out when the phone begins ringing off the hook with calls from students seeking last-minute graduation applications or frustrated parents who have realized they have children graduating from different colleges at the same time.

"The University doesn’t hold one big ceremony. We have nine ceremonies over the course of four days, and seven in just two days," she says. "It’s more personalized that way."

  Assistant registrar Julie Fell displays the medallion that President Coleman wears at commencement ceremonies. Photo by Rex Bavousett.

Among the departments Fell combines forces with are Facilities Services Group (FSG), which helps set up the stage and chairs at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and orders the flowers; University Book Store, which sells caps and gowns; Food Services, which provides light refreshments for faculty and staff working or participating in the ceremonies; Public Safety, which helps with crowd control and facilitates the influx of vehicles into UI parking lots; WSUI, which broadcasts the ceremonies; and University Video Center, which tapes them.

Brad Allison, Public Safety patrol officer, says his department usually has two officers and several guards at each commencement. Officers sign up for overtime assignments to accommodate for the busy weekend.

"We also have increased patrols around the residence halls. There’s a lot of activity going on that weekend. We assist with students moving out, parents needing directions, and general traffic control," Allison says. "Over the years, we’ve developed a smooth operation."

Bob Kutcher, supervisor of FSG Plant Service, has been helping with graduation since 1968. Since the Liberal Arts commencement moved in the 1980s from the Field House to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, preparation has taken much less effort.

"We only have to block off a few days to help with it," says Kutcher, whose staff helps with the set-up of the stage and chairs and the distribution of diploma covers. "We used to dress the whole Field House in drapery and it was pretty impressive, but it took a lot more work."

Shawn Fitzpatrick, grounds supervisor, says commencement provides the only opportunity for his team to work indoors. For the May ceremonies at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and Hancher, he orders 18 cushion mums—12 yellow and six white—and rents several Boston ferns to be placed around the stages.

"It’s a fairly quick operation for us," he says. "The December ceremony takes more time because we have to tack up garland around the stage and clean up the pine needles afterward."

Peter Hubbard, assistant director of the Academic Programs Office in the College of Liberal Arts, arranges speakers and rounds up 10 faculty and staff volunteers to be the marshals who lead the procession. The college has the largest ceremony—approximately 1,300 of its 1,552 graduating seniors will attend.

"While the Registrar’s Office deals with the physical arrangement of graduation, the college takes care of the ceremony and what takes place on stage," he says. "We don’t have any outside speakers—it’s an internal affair. It’s a tradition here.

University Book Store staff begin selling caps and gowns to graduating students several weeks before commencement ceremonies. Photo by Rex Bavousett.

"I think people would be surprised at how many people on campus are involved in commencement and at how well it all fits together. There is a lot of cooperation," he says. "It’s a happy yet busy time for us at the college because we’re also preparing for the next cohort of incoming freshmen. We always take a few hours to celebrate graduation, however, and then everyone’s relieved."

President Mary Sue Coleman always speaks at the Liberal Arts commencement and sometimes another one as well, if her schedule permits. This year, she will attend commencements at the Colleges of Law and Dentistry. Thomas Dean, special assistant to the president, says the two pick a topic for the speech about a month ahead of time. That gives them time to research, write, rewrite, and rehearse.

"President Coleman treats each commencement address as among her most important speeches of the year. She wants to say something substantive, meaningful, and fresh to each graduating class. We don’t use ‘canned’ speeches—each address is newly written," Dean explains.

"We look for something that’s connected to up-to-the-minute issues but also that allows for some inspiring, enduring thoughts. In the past, she’s talked about a variety of issues—from the need for increased ‘social capital’ last December to breakthroughs in gene research last August."

As soon as the ceremonies are over, Fell says, the graduation analysis area is busy once again, "clearing" the degrees based on graduating students’ final grades and printing the diplomas.

"I think the University does a pretty good job with graduation. We work really hard to make it a memorable event for students and their families," she says. "It sure makes for a busy weekend in Iowa City."

Article by Sara Epstein


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