University prepares for Commencement week

Commencement organizers said they look forward to having extensive student involvement in a ceremony expected to bring more than 20,000 graduates and guests to the Ellipse Sunday.

The ceremony for the class of 2004 will feature brief remarks from four honorary degree recipients and speeches from GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and two graduates.

This year’s Commencement will break from the tradition of having one student speaker with speeches from senior Adam Greenman and graduate student L. Trenton Marsh. GW will also continue a practice it began last year by selecting graduates to serve as the honorary degree recipients’ special escorts.

“With every Commencement we are pretty much starting from scratch,” said University Marshal Jill Kasle, one of the event’s main planners. “We examine what we did the year before, and then we figure out how we want to change or improve it. We’re always asking, ‘How can we make this better?'”

Another break from tradition will be having honorary degree recipients each give a two-minute speech instead of one keynote speaker delivering a longer address. Virginia Governor and GW alumnus Mark Warner headlined last year’s ceremony.

The slate for 2004 features former Supreme NATO Allied Commander Gen. John Shalikashvili, oncologist Luther W. Brady, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leon Lederman, and Shakespearean scholar and former GW professor Gail Kern Paster. Brady and Shalikashvili are alumni.

“We decided this year to just have everybody speak because we really couldn’t make a choice,” Kasle said. “If we have the Nobel Prize winner speak, what do we do about the former head of NATO and joint chief of staff?”

Kasle added that some introductory rites usually performed by school administrators have been cut to keep the event within its standard timeframe of 90 minutes.

The ceremony, which will begin at about 10 a.m. Sunday, is the culmination of a weekend of events that includes a Friday interfaith service led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Saturday night’s Monumental Celebration in Union Station. Tickets for the celebration cost $60 for graduates and $70 for guests.

Jason Wilson, an operations manager for the Smith Center, which organizes the $400,000 weekend, said the setup process for Commencement began early this week.

“It’s a full seven-day affair by a lot of different people,” said Wilson, who oversees much of the event planning. “So many different departments play a role. Everybody is pitching in and helping out to get it done.”

Wilson added that the University hires independent contractors, security personnel and 400 student workers to bring all the elements of Commencement together.

In the event that the Ellipse is deemed unsafe, the University is prepared to move the ceremony to the MCI Center at 601 F St., N.W.

Jim Hess, executive director of University Events, said Commencement will take place on the Ellipse “rain or shine,” but the National Park Service could close down the area behind the White House for “any number of things,” including terrorist threats and extremely poor weather.

On May 9 The Weather Channel predicted a 40 percent chance of precipitation next Sunday with a high temperature of 81 degrees.

“We feel we’re well prepared,” Hess said. “We’ve worked with the MCI Center for several years now, and we’ve got a pretty good plan in place. We certainly hope we don’t have to make that call, but if we do, we expect it to go fairly smoothly.”

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, security has become a major concern for Commencement planners due to the Ellipse’s proximity to the White House and other government buildings.

“The government is understandably much more concerned with what is brought into the area,” Hess said. “It’s the backyard of sorts for the White House we’re talking about.”

The University works with Metropolitan Police, U.S. Park Police, the Secret Service and the National Park Service, which supervises the use of the Ellipse to create a safe environment for graduation, Hess said.

Planners said they are confident graduates will be pleased with the ceremony.

“I hope that seniors will walk away from Commencement with a real appreciation for what they’ve gotten out of their time at GW,” Kasle said.

-Michael Barnett contributed to this report.

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