For 'U' event planners, a presidential commencement is a tall order

By Stephanie Steinberg, Daily News Editor
Published April 28, 2010

University event coordinators threw their routine commencement plans out the window when President Barack Obama was named this year’s commencement speaker in February.

Numerous University offices and departments have been working together for months to make sure everything for the event goes smoothly. From parking to ticket distribution to providing bagels for the graduates to eat while waiting on Elbel Field at 6 a.m., thousands of University staff and volunteers spent countless hours and sleepless nights finalizing plans for the big day.

But officials like University Public Events Producer Julie Ashley said they haven’t minded all the extra stress involved in preparing for today.

“We knew this was going to cause quite the flurry in Ann Arbor and within the state of Michigan,” Ashley said in an interview earlier this week. “As soon as the word was released … the phones have been ringing nonstop ever since with questions. It’s just been really exciting.”

Ashley, one of the top organizers of the commencement festivities, said the first issue was figuring out how to fit all the graduates on the field. According to Ashley, a typical spring commencement yields about 3,500 graduates. The one exception was when commencement was held on the Diag in 2008 and 5,500 graduates attended. But this year, 12,000 students are eligible to graduate and officials said they expected most of them to participate in the ceremony.

Based on that estimate, coordinators didn’t know if they could provide enough seating space for the graduates.

“We looked at an aerial photo when President Clinton spoke in 2007 when we had 6,000 grads on the field, and it looked pretty full,” Ashley said. “And we’re going ‘Oh my goodness. What are we going to do?’”

To maximize seating, event staff met with University architects to come up with a seating layout that packs 7,500 graduates onto the field. Ashley said the University is confident there will be enough seats on the field since thousands of students graduated in December’s winter commencement and have already left the University.

In addition to arranging seating for the graduates, event staff also had to deal with the high volume of graduates asking for tickets. Ashley said after it was announced that Obama would be commencement speaker, graduates began calling immediately to ask for more than their allotted eight tickets, and it was the first time officials had to turn down their requests.

“In the past, we’ve been able to accommodate that, but knowing that we are just going to fill that stadium up alone with families of the graduates we have to be more conservative and that was hard,” Ashley said.

Foreseeing the high ticket demand, the University created a new system for ticket pick up. In order to receive their tickets, graduates had to scan their MCard, which would confirm their eligibility to receive tickets. The scanner also tallied how many tickets were distributed.

“That’s pretty advanced technology for us,” Ashley said. “Before, it was 'show us your MCard' and we gave you tickets.”

Though the new system was intended to be more organized and efficient, some graduates picking up tickets from the Alumni Center this past week had to wait in a line that at its peak snaked back to Hill Auditorium.

Ashley said that even though the graduates may have had to stand in line for hours, the morale was “so high” and everyone was “so excited” that students didn’t seem bothered by the wait.

In addition to streamlining the ticket pick-up process, officials also made upgrades in the audiovisual equipment that will be used during the ceremony. Ashley said the event will be different from when the last sitting president to give a commencement address — former President George H.W. Bush — gave the spring commencement speech in 1991 without video screens.

Ashley added that guests can expect the most “sophisticated” technical audiovisual equipment, including video monitors and sound systems that will help them see and hear the president who will be speaking from his own lectern brought from the White House.

To better gauge what needed to be done, University coordinators also reached out to the University of Notre Dame and Arizona State University — two institutions where Obama gave commencement addresses last year.

Ashley said it was helpful to talk with officials from ASU since their commencement last year was held in ASU’s Sun Devil stadium, a setting similar to the Big House. She added that it wasn’t until this week that the Secret Service and White House Advance Team got involved in planning for today.

“They were very pleased with all that we have done now, and now it’s just a matter of tweaking,” Ashley said in an interview Tuesday.

She added that University officials didn’t expect to receive detailed instructions from the White House in advance.

“Because so much is happening in the world, to be realistic, President Obama coming to Ann Arbor is just one more event on his agenda,” Ashley said. “So we’re really scrambling this week to finalize all the security.”

Department of Public Safety officials have also been working with Secret Service and state and local law enforcement to finalize security plans for the event.

DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown explained that Secret Service requires certain security measures be in place at any event the president attends. In the University’s case, all commencement guests have to walk through magnetometers, or metal detectors, like at airports. Additionally, the Secret Service prohibited guests from bringing air horns, cigarette lighters and clear sealed water bottles, which are items guests would normally be allowed to take in the stadium, Brown said.

On the other hand, items like umbrellas aren’t on the Secret Service’s prohibited items list, but are not permitted in the Big House because of University regulations.

Brown said there are similar security and travel protocols that take place in preparing for a visit from a dignitary — like when the Dalai Lama spoke at Crisler Arena in 2008.

“You have to work out the various logistics for the people that are coming, and where can they go and how are they going to get there,” she said.

Brown said University officials work with the federal agency assigned to providing protection for the visiting person. With the Dalai Lama, Brown said DPS collaborated with the U.S. State Department, but for Obama, they will be collaborating with the Secret Service. Brown added that there are subtle security differences between the agencies.

“They would have slightly different requirements based on who the person is and what if anything the state of threats would be at that time — whether internationally, nationally or even locally,” she said.

Though she could not give a number of how many DPS officers and Secret Service officials will be onsite during commencement, Brown said the majority of DPS officers will be performing a wide range of duties today including helping with pedestrian traffic, staffing the stadium gates and policing the area.

“If somebody assaults somebody, then we obviously have to address that kind of an issue or they try to steal something,” Brown said. “One never knows when you bring a group of people together what might happen.”

DPS will also be working with the Ann Arbor Police Department to direct traffic flow and ensure security.

In an interview earlier this week, AAPD Lieutenant Angela Abrams said she could not comment on what kind of safety procedures the Ann Arbor Police will be involved with “because of the nature of the event.”

“All I can say is that there will be adequate coverage for the president’s arrival and commencement speech on Saturday, and that’s a culmination of federal, county, state and local police,” she said.

Officials have plans in place for emergencies that might occur as well. Ashley said every chair on the field is tied together so that if graduates need to evacuate, officials do not “have to worry about a calamity of any sort.” Similar to football games, emergency messages would also appear on the video screens and be announced over the speaker to inform attendees what actions to take.

And according to Ashley, officials have also prepared for any unexpected weather issues. If the weather turns severe, coordinators would switch to the “rain plan,” which shortens the ceremony but guarantees that all the graduates are conferred, Ashley said.

But whether it rains or shines, Ashley said the main goal is to provide the best experience for the graduates and their families who get the rare opportunity to have the president speak at their commencement.

“When they were a freshman and when their families were so excited that they would be a U of M grad four years ago, who would have thought that their commencement day would be with President Obama as the commencement speaker?”