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Fall Convocation Salutes Tradition With Contemporary Twist

Fall Convocation, one of the happiest days on the academic calendar, is in the books for 2017. Held the night before classes begin, the purpose is to affirm each student’s decision to attend the university, to begin to transfer school traditions, and to build pride.

Like many southern schools, ours takes place outdoors, never mind that late August is almost always oppressively hot and sticky. This year, more than 1,000 freshmen marched en masse to the campus greenway to officially commemorate their entry into the university. They were greeted by waiting faculty, applauding upperclassmen, and a program of short talks from the president, provost, and an alumnus. The student government leader administered the university’s student creed and a music faculty member led the singing of alma mater.

“Convocation” means a gathering. In academics, convocations are held for a variety of purposes from opening the new academic year to awarding honorary degrees. They are a tradition with roots in the clerical processions of the Roman Catholic Church dating back to the Middle Ages.

What I like is that while Fall Convocation nods to the past and rich academic tradition, ours has a definite contemporary bent. It is a strange blend of seriousness set against the casual atmosphere of a summer evening on the campus lawn. The ceremony’s music is played from a smartphone. Faculty no longer dress in regalia, instead, they wear polo shirts in school colors. Students march in matching tee-shirts specially ordered for the occasion. No solemn procession this, instead, students jubilantly and boisterously process to the site singing, clapping, and cheering along the way. But when the ceremony begins, all is seriousness.

Students are silent as their class flag is presented and then listen intently as the president and provost encourage and admonish them to study hard. They earnestly repeat the student creed and work hard to get through the unfamiliar alma mater.

As the ceremony ends, another university tradition is observed. Faculty form a double line through which the new students process. Faculty greet them individually and hand them symbolic tassels in our school colors, blue and white, as talismans to remind them of their goal of earning a degree. Four years hence, students will process through the double-line again, at their commencement, where faculty will congratulate them on earning a real tassel—one in the color of their degree.

From the “tassel tunnel” students arrive the president’s picnic, their first official meal on campus. They are joined by upperclassmen and the picnic quickly morphs into a party with a live band. The evening is capped by fireworks.

Ceremonies are important markers for celebrating key moments in our lives. Weddings, retirements, awards, and funerals mark life’s defining moments. Incorporating the tradition of convocation into the frothy week of freshmen welcome makes a powerful impression that will be remembered long after the foam party or freshman mixer are forgotten. Fall Convocation marks the entry of a student into the next phase of life and plays an important and memorable role in building early and strong bonds that eventually translate into alumni support.

As we pass traditional ceremonies along, it is important to remember that to be meaningful, sustained, and treasured, ceremonies must (and will) be reinterpreted by each generation.

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Webinar Gives Staff Confidence to Manage Mingling

August is New Year’s in higher education. By month’s end, the majority of schools are back in session and advancement teams are already involved in a tide of fall special events that entail managing mingling including football tailgating, alumni reunions, fund-raising programs, and student recruiting receptions. Hosting guests and making them feel welcome is one of the fundamental jobs of advancement professionals but “working a room” is a skill that isn’t natural and doing it well can take years of practice. These days, most people are far more comfortable texting than they are talking to the living, breathing humans standing nearby. This includes our own staff members, especially if they are newcomers to our profession.

Special events are some of the most effective tools for building personal relationships, but they are also one of the most expensive. When guests attend an event without being greeted, made to feel welcome, and encouraged to deepen their involvement because someone actually took the time to engage them in conversation and get to know them, events are simply a waste of resources. The obvious per-person cost of food and beverage notwithstanding, special events carry a large cost in planning, staffing, and follow up. But the irreplaceable fact that makes events worth doing is that they offer one-on-one relationship building opportunities far more powerful than any online campaign.

We’ve all experienced events where staff huddle talking to each other rather than working the crowd, or they make certain the boss sees them, then load up at the buffet and finally melt away without interacting with anyone. I’m not talking about just rookies. Senior staff are equally guilty!

As American culture has become more casual, many people have arrived at adulthood without knowing how to socialize in a crowd. This doesn’t mean they aren’t willing, it just means the opportunity to learn hasn’t been available. Giving staff tools for self-confidence through training is a proven way to boost performance and maximize ROI whether they are attending a board meeting, or mingling at a black-tie gala.

A perennial exercise of each new school year is holding planning “retreats” and training workshops to indoctrinate newcomers, update continuing staff, map out goals, and energize everyone for the work ahead. This is the perfect time to train your staff by honing their interpersonal skills which in turn will give them the confidence to take the lead in social settings.

Essential skills include knowing how to shake hands properly, make a self-introduction, introduce others, mingle while balancing food and beverage, enter and exit a group, enjoy conversation, and dress for the occasion.

This summer I recorded a webinar, “Conferences, Receptions, and Cocktails,” for the Council For Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), that covers these and other pertinent topics relevant to the variety of the occasions we encounter on campus. I encourage you to consider incorporating it into your fall retreat. Doing so will provide staff with the self-confidence to do their jobs, and help establish a standard code of conduct for your advancement team. The webinar is posted at case.org and is complimentary to members. Log-in at www.case.org and go to Publications and Products, Store, under Product Type, find Webinars.

Best wishes for much success in the new academic year!

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Perception is Reality

 

We will likely never know the true intention of New Jersey Gov. Christies’ July 4 weekend trip to his private beach while the adjacent state park beach was closed due to his government‘s shutdown. Was it a “let them eat cake” gesture, or simply a callous obliviousness to how his behavior would be perceived? It doesn’t matter. Perception is reality. His beach trip was interpreted as an “in your face” message to New Jersey’s lawmakers and citizens. It created a firestorm of negative press and outrage from people across the country. There are lessons here for leaders, event planners, and protocol professionals.

Every move our principals make, whether they are university presidents, elected officials, military officers, or corporate CEOs, is only a disgruntled tweet or unflattering cell phone photo away from controversy. The university president leaves an awards function early. Some will interpret the fact as someone has angered her, or she disapproves of something, when in reality, she has to attend two more events before day’s end. The mayor doesn’t show up for a ribbon cutting instead sending a surrogate because an urgent matter has arisen at city hall. People may read this as a snub to the new business. The senator doesn’t personally greet everyone in the room leaving some people feeling slighted. They make negative comments on social media.

In an interesting ed.TED talk called, “Truth vs. Perception vs. Reality,” (ed.ted.com/on/AsddeXsA) Trevor Maber gives an insightful explanation of how our brains zoom to conclusions based on what we see when a current situation is compared against our experiences, emotions, and assumptions. Sadly, our brains often jump to incorrect conclusions because we don’t have all the facts. We believe what we see.

While we can’t control the behavior of our principals, we can help steer them away from potential perception PR disasters by

  1. Being situationally aware. Knowing the issues and political climate, who will be present and what their agendas might be. (The mood of the populace after losing their traditional July 4 beach visit was not favorable.)
  2. Being willing to modify plans to enhance or avoid situations. (An announcement from the podium during the president’s introduction that she is present to welcome the gathering and then must leave, could potentially avoid negative speculation.)
  3. Being willing to make suggestions to the boss and apprise him or her of possible situations or consequences. (People might be angered, sir, if you use your private beach when theirs is closed.)

An important component of leadership is leading by example, and most seasoned leaders do this very well, but sometimes, principals may not realize how their behavior might be perceived. The governor had the perfect right to sit on his private beach, regardless of what anyone might think. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad PR.

As event planners and protocol professionals it is our job to help prevent disastrous episodes by thinking and acting in the best interest of our leaders to avoid potential problems. Afterall, we are the people responsible for arrangements, itineraries, and guest lists.

A five-course gourmet meal with expensive wines for the board of trustees on the day they vote to increase tuition and announce no pay raises, is an unseemly juxtaposition and one that could easily be avoided. An astute planner would discreetly and quickly work with the chef to modify plans.

The next time the planner sees the supposedly snubbed supporter’s name on a guest list, she cues the boss and tactfully orchestrates a personal greeting.

In the case of the beach outing, a planner could diplomatically offer a list of enticing alternative activities.

Some principals accept guidance readily and others may never do so. But while suggestions and work-arounds may not always be adopted, you’ll sleep better knowing you did your best to avoid a problem.