Walking the grounds of the soggy Ellipse at 7 a.m. to think things through, Freedman came across a couple from western Pennsylvania, sitting in the front row of the visitor’s section, huddled under an umbrella. “They had come early to get good seats for their daughter’s graduation, and were wet, but didn’t look unhappy,” says Freedman. “I asked them point blank whether they would prefer to stay on the Ellipse or move to MCI. The mom looked at me, and without skipping a beat, said, ‘I’ve been watching my daughter in the rain from under an umbrella since she was four years old. We’ve been through soccer, cheerleading, and many other activities, and certainly have no problem watching her graduate from college from under an umbrella in the rain.’ It was a seminal moment for me,” says Freedman. “Tears came to my eyes as I realized that even the rain made the day memorable to these parents, as they could relate college graduation to so many earlier magical moments in the life of their family. It was then and there that I decided that as long as the rain did not get any worse, my recommendation to President Trachtenberg would be to keep commencement on the Ellipse.”
The decision, it turned out, was right on the mark: as the procession began, the rain stopped. The culminating event in a weekend packed with celebratory festivities, Commencement 2003, like all GW graduations, was the end result of months of hard work and planning by an army of University professionals and students.
A standard fixture in alumni magazines, commencement stories tend to focus on the finished product—in all of its pageantry and grandeur. In the pages that follow, we go backstage at GW to tell the story behind the story of the biggest event of the year.
GW’s rich commencement history dates back to Dec. 15, 1824, when the first three graduates of Columbian College received their degrees at a ceremony attended by President James Monroe, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Secretary of War John Calhoun, and Speaker of the House Henry Clay. As the University grew, GW began holding separate commencement ceremonies for every school, each with its own speakers, honorary degree recipients, and traditions. In 1992, President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg centralized commencement ceremonies, creating the well-loved traditional ceremony on the Ellipse.
When Trachtenberg first arrived at GW, the University had dealt with the problem of not having enough space for a University-wide commencement by disaggregating into schools. Each school held its own ceremony and had its own speaker. “This had a certain intimacy to it,” Trachtenberg says, “but it prevented the University from creating any sense of grandeur during commencement. There was nothing universal about it.”
Then two students who were longtime roommates approached him. They were in different schools and were upset because they would not be able to share the commencement ceremony. Trachtenberg looked around the country and saw what other large institutions were doing—Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, for example, all held their exercises outdoors. Commencement at Harvard was in Harvard Yard. Trachtenberg realized that although GW did not have Harvard Yard, it did have the Ellipse nearby. And so the tradition was born.
“It has become a beloved institutional tradition,” he explains. “Students think it is terrific to graduate with the White House on one side and the Washington Monument on the other.”
Planning for the May event begins early each academic year. “Preliminary work typically gets under way in September and October, and beginning in January, we move into high gear,” says Freedman. A dedicated team of professionals spanning the entire University works hard to ensure that commencement is a success. Two people enjoying front row seats to the action are GW University Marshal Jill Kasle and Jim Hess, executive director of University Events. Kasle, the chief ceremonial officer of the University since 1989, directs the commencement ceremony, writes the script, and manages the lengthy process for selecting honorary degree recipients and commencement speakers, while Hess oversees logistics for the massive commencement operation. “We always say that Jim Hess produces and I direct,” Kasle says.
Both spend a large portion of the year working on commencement. “One of the great surprises of planning commencement is how long it takes,” says Kasle. “We started planning Commence-ment 2004 long before we even held Commencement 2003.” Perhaps the most time-consuming part of Kasle’s job is the honorary degree recipient selection process. “Popes get picked more easily than GW honorary degree recipients,” she says. “It’s an extremely complex process that preserves a lot of institutional values and includes the input of many people.”
Kasle receives year-round nominations for honorary degree recipients from faculty, students, staff, administrators, alumni, the Board of Trustees, and friends. She collects the names and passes them along to the Faculty Senate Committee on Honors and Academic Convocations, which evaluates them and prunes the list. In the early fall, the committee convenes to finalize the selections, and then presents them to Trachtenberg for review. The list then goes to Donald Lehman, executive vice president for academic affairs, who passes it on to the Academic Affairs Committee of the GW Board of Trustees, and then to the full Board of Trustees, which holds final decision-making power.
Kasle says it is GW tradition to keep the name of the commencement speaker and honorary degree recipients under lock and key until around May 1. “There’s an active rumor mill that operates at high speed throughout the year over who the commencement speaker is,” she says. “My closest friends do not even know. I knew for 18 months that Bill Cosby was going to speak at commencement in 1997, but did not tell anyone. I can keep a secret. I will not tell.”
“Universities are schizophrenic about commencement speakers,” remarks Trachtenberg. “We want speakers who are famous and thoughtful, but we also want their speeches to be brief and entertaining.” Some of the most popular speakers among students have been Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, Desmond Tutu and then First Lady and now Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Once every planning meeting has been held and every task is precisely executed, the unexpected still often occurs. “Every year, an army of people plans commencement, and every year something outwits us,” says Kasle. “I’ve said 100 times that it’s not the stuff we’ve planned for that is going to get us. It’s the stuff we have no idea is ever going to happen.”
She lists anecdote after anecdote about commencement near-mishaps. “In May 1994, when Hillary Rodham Clinton was addressing graduates at commencement, a great wind came up and started lifting the back of the stage off of its moorings,” she says. “If the stage had tilted, she could have been pitched right into the audience. Stagehands frantically raced to secure the stage, and, thankfully, tragedy was averted.”
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the speaker in 2000, arrived in a motorcade that was denied permission to drive onto the Ellipse because, moments earlier, park police had mistaken a decoy convoy for the real thing and allowed it through. “When Madeleine Albright’s real motorcade showed up, the driver was told that the motorcade had already arrived,” says Kasle. “Secretary Albright was held out on the street for a short time until the situation was cleared up.”
Sometimes, the most memorable commencement moments cannot be found in a script.
“On the Ellipse one year, the presidential helicopter, heading for the back lawn of the White House, flew right over the audience and the whole crowd went wild, cheering, waving, and clapping,” recalls Kasle. “It can only happen in Washington.”
Another memorable and spontaneous commencement moment occurred in 2001, when, at the close of the ceremony, honorary degree recipient Tony Bennett spontaneously sang a little snippet of his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” after making an eloquent acceptance speech. “I can, therefore, honestly say that we’ve had honorary degree recipients sing, as well as speak, their acceptance of their degree,” says Kasle.
Weather, too, can change the planned course of a commencement ceremony. “We’ve had every kind of weather imaginable over the years—from cold rain and strong winds to intense heat, and everything in between,” Kasle says. “This year, I honestly expected to see animals marching two by two down Constitution Avenue looking for a guy named Noah and his ark!”
And, of course, nobody will forget 1995, when a lightning storm forced the cancellation of commencement just before its scheduled start. At that time, the MCI Center didn’t exist and there was no venue in Washington large enough to accommodate GW’s needs for an alternate site.
In 2002 and 2003, GW secured the MCI Center as a back-up site to use in the event of life-threatening weather or local or national emergencies. “You never know in our post-9/11 world when the day will come when circumstances or directives will require us to move the event indoors,” Freedman says. “The MCI Center is essentially our insurance policy, and all of the planning that is done for the Ellipse ceremony is done, at least on paper, for the MCI Center—from walk-throughs to contingency plans for bus service. Every ounce of effort that goes into planning for the Ellipse is duplicated for the MCI Center. The best-case scenario is that all of our planning at the MCI Center is for naught, and that’s the way we want it to continue to be.”
The planning and efforts put into commencement are intensified in the days just before the ceremony. According to Jim Hess, who coordinates the massive logistics, the pace of activity picks up dramatically on the Monday before commencement. “Banners are pulled out and organized to use at the various events, and stakes are put in the ground on the Ellipse to mark out where the stage, tents, and chairs will be positioned,” he says. On Tuesday, the University-hired tent company, sound company, and staging company begin setting up their equipment on the Ellipse. “It takes two tractor-trailers to bring the required 20,000 chairs to the Ellipse for commencement,” says Hess. “We hire around 400 GW student employees to assist with all of the commencement week activities. After several days of effort, we usually put the finishing touches on the Ellipse by Saturday morning, since we like to build in some extra time in case we run into bad weather.”
Weather can affect the commencement set-up as well as the actual ceremony. “If the weather doesn’t cooperate, it can make things tricky,” says Tony Vecchione, assistant athletic director for facilities and operations, who has overseen the set up of the Ellipse for the past four years. “Rain really hinders set-up, since the National Park rangers ask us to protect the grass by putting down plywood roads to bring in the equipment. We also have to protect the sound equipment from the rain, wipe down 20,000 chairs for the patrons, and put down drying agents on the ground to make it more walkable. Set-up is also tough in extreme heat. We feel very lucky when we have a couple of dry, breezy days to get the job done. ”
While hundreds of people are hard at work tending to last-minute details, graduates and their families dance the night away Saturday evening at Monumental Celebration, an eagerly anticipated, annual commencement-eve gala at Union Station, featuring food and drink, live music, DJs, caricature artists, fortune tellers, photography stations, and more.
“Monumental Celebration has become another wonderful tradition at our University,” Freedman says, pointing out that this year, ticket sales for the event reached a record high of 4,500. “I think of Union Station as one of the great monuments of Washington—akin to a Victorian airport,” says Freedman. “It is so ornate and lovely, with its marble floors, gold-leaf ceilings, and Roman statues. It’s the perfect place to have an elegant celebration for our graduates and their families.”
Commencement weekend also features a number of school-based ceremonies on Friday and Saturday, where families get to see graduates walk across the stage and shake their dean’s hand. This past commencement weekend, GW’s Charles E. Smith Center hosted six school celebrations, each packed to capacity with 5,000 guests.
“The Smith Center does a great job coordinating the school ceremonies,” says Director of University Events Jessica Carlson. “This year, the Smith Center crew had 20 to 30 minutes to get 5,000 guests out and the next 5,000 guests in. The lines of guests for each event were literally wrapped around the Smith Center one and a half times.”
Down the street at the Marvin Center, GW staffers execute a commencement week juggling act of their own. “We host around 50 commencement-related events in a seven-day time period,” says Danielle Lico, assistant director of conferences, events, and student programs for the Marvin Center. “We host large receptions for most of the schools after the school ceremonies, plus departmental and program receptions, award ceremonies, the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony, and many other events.”
When Sunday morning arrives, a fleet of 35 shuttle buses hired by the University spring into action, running continuous loops between Foggy Bottom and the Ellipse between 7:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. GW’s media relations staff escort local news crews to the media platform and provide them with the information that they need. Some 200 GW staff members, plus the 400 student employees, work on the Ellipse, distributing programs, giving away 10,000 free GW ponchos, and assisting guests with a variety of needs.
“It’s one of those great events that brings the entire University community together,” says Freedman. “Everybody rolls up their sleeves and digs in and just works until the job is done…from wiping down the chairs to straightening a pennant to putting up signage to helping out visitors. There are so many people involved in so many ways that commencement is nearly as large an undertaking as a national political convention. Commencement on the Ellipse is a tremendously gratifying time for all of us, and, I believe, one of the best traditions in American higher education, leaving our graduates with a real sense of satisfaction at the close of their GW experience.”
Trachtenberg concurs, “The best part of commencement is the four years that lead up to it. Commencement itself is a punctuation mark.”