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| Without a doubt -- for most students -- convocation is one of life's most spectacular moments. With loved ones at hand to celebrate the completion of a degree, you don't want anything to louse up a once-in-a-lifetime event.
University marshal Michael Smith
PHOTO: CLAUDIO CALLIGARIS
Making sure that nothing does ruin the ceremony is sociology professor Michael Smith's job as McGill's university marshal, a job he took on last fall.
This spring's ceremonies have been particularly difficult to oversee as McGill's traditional venue for convocations, Place des Arts, is engulfed in labour disputes. So Smith set into motion Operation Venue Change to ensure this spring's nearly 4,600 graduates have suitable places to receive their diplomas.
This feat he achieved by convening the two May 17 health sciences convocations at the Monument-National on St. Laurent Blvd., while the last four ceremonies are moving to the larger Molson Centre on June 7 and 8. (The smaller June 2 law, agricultural and environmental sciences convocations, held at Pollack Hall and Macdonald Campus respectively, were organized by the faculties themselves).
Apart from securing venues, Smith also ensures the right elements are on stage -- from flowers, flags, chairs, people and a brass quintet -- and are on cues. McGill's Department of Facilities Management helps with props, while diplomas are provided through the Admissions, Recruitment and Registrar's Office.
"Coordinating all of this is a huge amount of work. I have to keep an eye on every detail -- everything," says Smith, adding McGill relieves one course from his workload, per semester, to facilitate his second job.
Associate chemistry chair Patrick Farrell, who was the university marshal and vice-marshal for 12 years before Smith, concurs the job can be challenging. "To be university marshal," he explains, "you need excellent organizational skills."
It's a position that requires flexibility, too. "You have to expect the unexpected and cope with it," says Farrell. When Montreal mayor Pierre Bourque arrived late for one ceremony a few years ago, for instance, he had to be whisked onto stage quickly and quietly so as not to disturb the ceremony.
That's one of the reasons the university marshal relies on a troop of five to eight professors to help out during the actual ceremonies. Called convocation marshals, they volunteer to help for half a day during ceremonies to guide graduates in line and ensure everyone in the platform party is in the right seat.
"I like to describe the job as theatre ushers in medieval dress because of their attire," says Smith, smiling. "It's those outfits that contribute an air of pomp and pageantry to convocations."
The opportunity to wear the convocation costume is one of the reasons Alistair Duff, associate dean of management, has marshaled for three decades. And when he persuades colleagues to join in marshaling duties, he says, "the first thing I tell them is they get to wear the most gorgeous of red and green robes."
Hershey Warshawsky, an anatomy and cell biology professor, actually owns his own marshaling attire, which he inherited from a friend and colleague. "Students and their parents really enjoy seeing us in all that regalia," he says.
It's also for the sake of students that Warshawsky has marshaled for half of his 40-year career. "It's part of my academic duty and it's a terribly important job."
Unfortunately, convincing faculty to marshal is no easy task. "Professors are often so preoccupied with being scientists or are so busy," says Warshawsky, "that they put marshaling duties on the back burner."
But Duff stresses there's no excuse for avoiding marshaling duties. That's why he persuaded six colleagues to marshal this spring.
"Since convocation is a big day for students," he says, "it's insulting when their own professors can't be bothered to show up, whether their marshaling or not, to the ceremonies."
And having a last contact with students is what makes marshaling most worthwhile, concur the professors. "It's just a really enjoyable day for everyone," adds Duff.