The University has held 177 graduations, so how hard could it be to plan the 178th? Can’t the old plans be dusted off? Round up the usual suspects, ask them to do the usual things, say a prayer for sunshine and let the good times roll? The notion brings a wry smile to the face of Pam Higgins, who, as director of the Office of Major Events, will oversee her 17th graduation weekend May 19 and 20. If only it were so easy.
Her planning begins a few days after the previous graduation weekend, in long debriefing sessions to review what worked, what didn’t, and how to make it even better next time. Last year’s major innovation, a pair of large video screens positioned halfway down the Lawn for the benefit of those far from the stage at Old Cabell Hall, was well received, Higgins says.
Serious planning for the Class of 2007’s weekend got under way in the fall. In actuality, Higgins—renowned around Grounds for her meticulous attention to detail—must plot out two graduation scenarios, the main plan and the “rain plan,” activated only for unsafe weather conditions such as high winds or lightning. Rain by itself won’t move things inside, as the classes of 1983 (downpour during the procession) and 2003 (1.8 inches of rain throughout graduation morning) can attest. Following the main ceremony on the Lawn, dozens of smaller diploma ceremonies take place at indoor and outdoor locations throughout Grounds.
“It’s a puzzle—we’re trying to fit all of these diploma ceremonies into the various facilities,” Higgins says. This year, she has a new asset to deploy: the John Paul Jones Arena, which can seat about 14,000 in air-conditioned comfort, though that is still not nearly enough to accommodate the 30,000-plus expected to roll into Charlottesville.
Preparations kick into full gear in the spring, with dozens of logistical meetings and the recruitment and training of graduation workers. Weeks ahead of the big weekend, Facilities Management workers begin sprucing up the Lawn—painting here, growing grass there, cleaning somewhere else. In the days before the ceremonies, they set up and carefully align tens of thousands of chairs. “They take great pride in what they do, and they want the Lawn to look absolutely perfect,” Higgins says. At a Friday sound check one year, she teased that the chairs on one side of the main aisle were not quite aligned with those on the other side. “I said, ‘No one’s going to see it.’ I came back on Saturday morning, and those chairs had been moved.”
“Our guys attack it with a great deal of spirit each year,” says Chris Willis, director of operations at Facilities Management, who estimates that 500 workers contribute to graduation weekend. “It really draws them closer to the spirit of the University—when they’re fixing buildings, they don’t always feel that. They try to put on a really good show.”
The crowds are high-spirited and well-behaved—since 1989 anyway, when officials threatened to move the main ceremony off the Lawn or cancel it due to unruliness among the cap-and-gown-clad ranks. Enlisting third-year class trustees as ushers “has been a major, major help in keeping decorum, because it’s their graduation that gets impacted if things go wrong,” Higgins says.
But the crowds are also growing bigger; enrollment growth means more graduates each year, and graduates are inviting more and more guests to witness their big moment. When Higgins started planning graduations in 1991, about 15,000 people came to the Lawn. Last year, there were 32,000. Might graduation outgrow the Lawn some day? “I’m not going to say that,” Higgins says. “Let me retire first!”
Pomp and Circumstance
A typical graduation weekend, by the numbers:
- 45,000 chairs are set up at 50 sites, including 20,000 on the Lawn.
- About 1,000 employees staff graduation weekend, including ushers, police officers and emergency responders, bus drivers, caterers and faculty marshals.
- UVA Catering provides 21,000 cookies, 400 gallons of lemonade, 200 gallons of iced tea, 4,000 bottles of water, and 400 pounds each of pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew and strawberries.
- 1,000 feet of temporary fencing is erected on the Lawn for safety reasons.
- Hundreds of white stakes and a half-mile of roping demarcate sections of the Lawn.
- Close to 6,000 degrees are awarded (57 percent baccalaureate, 9 percent professional and 34 percent graduate).
- An estimated 32,000 people attend the Lawn ceremony.