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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.