Campus News

Commencement's Conductors


LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 5, 2010) - It is, without question, the most-scripted and least-spontaneous event during the University of Kentucky's academic year -- just as it is the year's climactic event.

On May 8, 2010, UK will end the 2009-2010 academic year at Rupp Arena, where thousands of graduating seniors, master's degree and doctoral degree candidates, and their parents, siblings, spouses and children will gather for the University's 143rd Commencement.

What they will experience will be unrehearsed -- but every player will know exactly what to say, when to say it, where to stand when they say it and when to sit down.

All thanks to the year-long efforts of T. Lynn Williamson and John Herbst, who for nearly 40 years have handled the planning, logistics and execution of the event that celebrates UK's purpose: educating and graduating Kentucky's next generation of leaders in all professional fields.

Their efforts will be found in the final version of the Cue Book, which contains every word spoken.

"Commencement is a huge event, so there's no way we can get all of the speakers in for a rehearsal. Since there is no rehearsal, everybody has to know what they do, where they go and what they say," said Williamson, who also serves as senior associate legal counsel for the University.

Every member of the platform party will be provided a Cue Book, but the most important ones will be in the hands of UK President Lee T. Todd Jr., Commencement Orator Everett McCorvey, Williamson and Herbst.

"The final versions of the president's and orator's Cue Books may have changes being made up to two minutes before the ceremony begins," Williamson said.

But let's back up here. When do Williamson and Herbst, director of UK's Student Center and chair of the Commencement Committee begin working on the event?

"Literally, as soon as one Commencement ends, we start work on the next one immediately," Williamson said. "The first step is evaluating any issues or problems that occurred on the one we just finished."

Next, Herbst contacts the facilities managers where individual colleges held their own smaller recognition ceremonies -- events that honor their graduates and help keep the main Commencement down to a reasonable time limit.

"On the weekend of Commencement, there are 28 Commencement functions that take place. We don't have 28 facilities available, and that means we have to allocate facilities and arrange these functions on staggered schedules," Herbst said.

"Every year we have to decide who gets what," he said.

Herbst also takes stock of how his team performed.

"We have a huge amount of UK support at the Lexington Center and Rupp Arena. In addition to the staff at Lexington Center and their talented International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees union crew, the UK Physical Plant, the Student Center Staff, and University Sound and Lights are heavily involved in the college events and the main Commencement, so we do a post-event evaluation of what worked, what didn't, what equipment we needed," Herbst said.

They also meet with the logistical and technical staff at Rupp Arena to identify any issues.

By December of the academic year, the facilities assignments have been determined and locked into place.

Meanwhile, Williamson is working on three publications. The first is the Commencement Web site, which has to be updated by January. Here, graduates will find answers about caps, gowns, handicapped accommodations, dining and other essentials.

"This is our primary communications link with students, and we still get about 300 questions from students. Ninety percent, I answer; 10 percent I send along to others," Williamson said.

The deadline for the second publication, the Commencement Program is around the first of April, when the names of award winners, Singletary Scholars graduates, honorary-degree awardees and the listing of 6,000 names of graduates -- with correct names and other information including their colleges and degrees -- must be submitted. Student Services Director Jacquie Hager in the Registrar's Office prepares the listing.

The third publication is the Cue Book, which is constantly subject to being updated.

All these months, Williamson and Herbst will meet frequently with the Commencement Committee, comprised of students, faculty and staff, to assist with many of the details.

On Friday, May 7, and the morning of Saturday, May 8, Herbst will scramble from one event to another, making sure microphones work, sets are in place, and myriad other details are taken care of at the 28 Commencement functions leading up to the main event.

On May 8, the day will begin early for Herbst, when he arrives at Rupp Arena at 6:30 a.m. -- making sure the arena's technical staff has prepared cameras and Internet connections, and anything else on his long list.

Around 1 p.m., students and faculty will begin arriving for the procession, which will enter the floor of Rupp Arena from four different doors. The actual lining up will start around 1:30, with Terry Malone, a special faculty member in the College of Health Sciences, coordinating the faculty marshals who provide order to each section of the procession. Each college will march in as a group, led by a student holding the college's banner.

Before the procession enters Rupp, Graduate School Dean Jeannine Blackwell conducts a hooding ceremony for graduate and doctoral students receiving their degrees. She and her staff also line up the graduate students.

Meanwhile, the platform party -- consisting of UK President Lee T. Todd Jr., Provost Kumble Subbaswamy, the UK Board of Trustees, college deans, honorary degree recipients and others -- will gather near the back of Rupp Arena.

At 2 p.m., the University of Kentucky Band will sound "Pomp and Circumstance," and Library Science Professor Lois Chan, the university marshal, will lead in the student processional. She will carry the University's ceremonial mace, used to signify the importance of the event and symbolizing UK's power to confer degrees.

After leading in the student processional, Chan will return to the back of Rupp Arena and lead in the faculty processional.

Finally, the orator will ask the audience to rise as the platform party proceeds to the stage. President Todd, wearing a ceremonial medallion presented to the University by former UK Trustee Robert McCowan, will follow Chan, with the rest of the party behind him.

From that moment on, every action -- excluding the Commencement speaker's remarks -- will follow the directions in the Cue Book.

"When Commencement happens, if no one knows T. Lynn and I exist, we've done our jobs," Herbst said.

Graduates are encouraged to connect during Commencement via Twitter and Facebook. Tweet about your experiences using the hash tag #ukgrad on Follow the University's official Twitter account @UniversityofKy for updates regarding Commencement. Invite your friends and family to attend Commencement on Facebook. Click here for the official Facebook event invitation. Commencement will be streaming live on UKNow and you can share your photos of the big day with us by emailing them to