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Professional Opinion

7 tips for a smoother ceremony

Making commencement better
University Business, July 2017
Matthew Poslusny is senior vice president and provost at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
Matthew Poslusny is senior vice president and provost at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.

Watching students receive their degrees fills us with pride. However, the ceremony itself often leaves us with dread. How long will it be? Will the names of the students be pronounced correctly? After more than 25 years in higher education, I’ve seen plenty of ceremonies that failed to answer these questions ahead of time.

The end result wasn’t always pretty.

This May I completed my fourth commencement at Meredith College. We have been able to reduce the time of the ceremony by almost 20 percent. As you debrief from this year’s ceremony and begin planning for next year, here are seven tips to make the event efficient without sacrificing the moments that make it special.

1. Practice.

It’s never too early to start practicing the pronunciation of the names that will be called. To facilitate this, we have created the Commencement Pronunciation Hotline.

Early in the academic year, we start encouraging graduating seniors to leave a voicemail on how to correctly pronounce their names. Having to decide how to pronounce a name on the spot takes precious time and interrupts the flow of the ceremony. Commit to the pronunciation and go with it. Lastly, be sure to practice reading all the names.

2. Too many cooks.

It is best if just one person is tasked with reading the names, hooding candidates, etc. The more people involved, the more likely someone hasn’t done tip 1.

3. Location, location, location.

The farther a student must walk to receive a diploma, the longer the ceremony. Decreasing the walk by five seconds per students adds up over the course of the entire class.

4. Pomp and circumstance.

It is a wonderful tune—except when everyone has to hear it repeated 72 times as the students and faculty walk in. Having students walk in rows of two or three is a great way to speed up this part of the ceremony.

5. Less is more when it comes to speeches.

The president needs to speak as well as the commencement speaker, but what about all the other two-to-three-minute speeches? Selecting who will speak for the students is important. Does it need to be the valedictorian? What if several students have a 4.0 GPA?

Having a protocol that prevents numerous valedictorian speeches is important. Also, have the speakers work with a centralized office to edit scripts for content and length. Having three people saying essentially the same thing can be wearisome for the audience.

6. Lose the cards.

I’m amazed at how many institutions still use index cards that the students hand to the person reading the names. Technology should make this obsolete.

At Meredith, the students form a line and, prior to reaching the stage, check in with a person who has a computer who ensures the right names appear on my laptop. The advantage is that when a name pops up on my screen, so do my notes about how to correctly pronounce it.

Also, if I do not need to receive a card, then I have greater freedom to arrange the stage, ensuring that the walk is as short as possible.

7. To give or not to give the diploma.

While it is great to give actual diplomas to students as they cross the stage, there are too many chances for a mistake. It is easier to provide a cover on stage and let the student pick up the actual diploma after the ceremony—or better yet, mail the diploma later. This has two advantages.

One, once the ceremony is over, the newly minted graduate does not need to wait in a long line to get the diploma.

Two, there are always a handful of students who are expecting to get their diploma but haven’t met all requirements yet. Let the students and families enjoy the day without finding out there’s still some work to be done.


Matthew Poslusny is senior vice president and provost at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.

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