Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 19, 1997

Commencement Day:
A Whirlwind of
Controlled Chaos

Mike Field
Staff Writer
It doesn't take much to put a Johns Hopkins University commencement together. Just 5,000 folding chairs. A 260-foot tent. Enough hand-tied black and gold ribbons for 4,902 diplomas. A small army of ushers, marshals, coordinators and other volunteers. Cooperative weather. And a managing staff with nerves of steel.

Luckily, the university has had them all for lo these many years: typically the most remarkable thing about the annual end-of-academic-year exercise is just how unremarkable the whole event seems to be. Students arrive. They manage to find their robing room, and somehow, when the time comes, find themselves fully decked out and ready to march in orderly lines.

Their parents and loved-ones, meanwhile, manage to find parking--that in itself a minor miracle on the Homewood Campus-- get from there to the upper quad, and always somehow locate a seat, though never quite the seat they were hoping for. The band plays. The students march in, followed by the faculty, the trustees, honored guests, and, eventually, the president of the university. Speeches are made. Awards are given. Degrees conferred.

And then, the whole thing is over. The graduates file out. Their guests follow. The music stops and the grounds crews begin cleaning up. The whole operation runs like--well, if not clockwork, then something like very controlled, very organized chaos.

"It's a definite circus," says Mary Ellen Robinson who, as director of the Office of Special Events, will be coordinating her 19th--and last--commencement ceremony this year. "I've lobbied to move the entire event to the Baltimore Arena, which would give us plenty of room and plenty of seating, but to no avail."

Apparently, the powers-that-be have steadfastly resisted the idea of moving the cramped, homey, this-is-family feel of the Homewood ceremony to a civic arena where parents would need binoculars to see their child walk across the stage and receive a diploma.

"At Hopkins we do a 'warm and fuzzy' commencement," is how Robinson puts it. "The parents can feel like they can reach out and touch their kids, and that's important." So the tent goes up, the folding chairs are put in place, and the show must go on.

"We start ordering the diplomas in December," says university registrar Hedy Schaedel, whose staff of 23 oversees assigning, tracking and awarding the 14 inch by 17 inch rolled and ribboned diplomas. Here again, the Hopkins way is not necessarily the easiest way.

"Some universities hand out rolled-up blank pieces of paper and then distribute the actual diplomas by mail or at specified locations after the ceremony," Schaedel says. "However, at Hopkins there is a tradition of giving the real diploma to the graduate when he or she comes up on stage."

That means the students must be lined up in the same order as their names appear on the reading list, which must also correspond with the discretely labeled rolled diplomas held in specially-constructed boxes in a small tented room behind the main stage. Somehow the diploma working its way from the back room and the graduate coming up from the audience must meet on stage at the moment the student's name is read from the lectern.

And somehow, each year, they do. "Our greatest concern is to give the readers an accurate reading list," Schaedel says. "Since the process of reading the names and handing out the diplomas is ongoing, there is really no time to recoup. The biggest fear we have is that somehow, things will get out of order."

The Registrar's office has a number of safeguards in place to prevent that from happening. Using the entire staff and an additional 20 or so volunteers, they have perfected a system of tracking which graduates are present as planned, which have been delayed or prevented from coming, and which have decided at the last minute to show up, even though they previously said they would not.

"In the diploma ceremonies staff in the robing rooms line up the students in alphabetical order, checking their names against the master list," says assistant registrar Pat Coady. "If someone shows up whose name isn't on the list, they are added in. No-shows are taken off, and the list is not delivered to the readers until the very last minute." Additional help is available on stage to discreetly move people and diplomas around, should any mix-up still occur.

In fact, the Registrar's office acts as a sort of emergency response unit, prepping readers and diploma distributors in the finer points of the procedure, sending letters with directions and parking information to all the graduates, and even providing robing room staff with an emergency supply of safety pins and bobby pins for last-second sartorial disasters.

But not every sort of disaster can be prevented. "I remember one year in the mid- or late-1980s when we had just an absolutely terrible storm the night before the tent went up," Robinson says. "The next day the quad was like a muddy football field. We had to put down sheets of plywood in order to walk. It was awful." In the end, some feet were wet and possibly even some shoes ruined, but the commencement ceremony went forward as planned.

"That one was bad, but all in all I'd say we've been relatively lucky," Robinson says.

This year's ceremony will be held beneath a new tent that is 20 feet longer and uses a different support structure than the old big top of previous years. Gone are the center poles that gave the old structure a circus-like feel and presented such difficulties in placing the commencement stage.

Gone, too--at least for this year--is the high-profile "name" speaker to deliver the commencement address. University President William R. Brody, completing his first academic year in office, will deliver the morning speech. But that, too, may be something of a Hopkins tradition.

"In earlier years it was unusual to have an outside speaker," says university archivist James Stimpert. "Usually the president or another faculty member gave the speech. The idea of bringing in a well-known public figure to address the university-wide commencement is largely a post-World War II phenomenon."

New Hopkins presidents, however, are usually offered the opportunity to speak to the graduates. Former university president William C. Richardson made use of the opportunity in 1990, as did other presidents before him. Whether Brody chooses to make his commencement address an annual tradition remains to be seen, though his participation is likely to accrue at least one benefit to spectators and participants in the three-plus hour event.

"Without an internationally-recognized speaker the commencement ceremony is much less of a media event, and there is less need to say something earthshaking," Stimpert says. "Looking at the records, I'd say that in the past, university presidents have tended to give speeches that are much briefer." "If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Leonard Bernstein's commencement address in 1980," says Robinson of her 19 years experience stage-managing the event. "It was thought provoking. He had an artist's perspective: Why can't we be peace-loving? I heard a lot of people say, 'That's a ridiculous way to view the world,' but I thought it was great. The perfect way to send the graduates out to meet the world."

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