The art of diplomacy

May 28, 2001

Mark Miester

For 22 years, Earl Retif's routine remained much the same. As university registrar, Retif was a fixture at each of the 10 commencement ceremonies on Tulane's uptown campus. He marched in every procession, listened to every charge to graduates and endured every attempt of levity launched by speakers at the lectern. But most importantly, he and his staff in the university registrar's office ensured that every student walked off the stage with a diploma, the right diploma.

"I was the one who gave the diploma to the president," Retif notes with a trace of lingering anxiety. "The president certainly didn't know every student. I didn't know every student. You hope that they know their name and will move when it's called, but that doesn't always happen. All you need is one to get out of sync."

At a time when many colleges and universities have foregone the distribution of diplomas at their ceremonies, Tulane is one of an elite number of universities committed to the tradition of handing over diplomas on stage, and at the heart of that tradition is the yeoman's effort of the registrar's office. The logistics of such an undertaking, which this year involved distributing some 2,200 diplomas to graduates, are daunting.

Between the last day of exams on May 11 and the commencement ceremony on May 19, grades for all students must be turned in and recorded, candidates for graduation must be certified by their respective schools and colleges, academic honors must be added to diplomas, and diplomas must be assembled and delivered to the schools and colleges.

"I am amazed at how much gets done in such a short amount of time," marvels assistant registrar Becky Maxwell. "From the time that grades are due until commencement, it's a week. And everybody gets their diploma. It's a huge effort."

When Tulane initiated a universitywide commencement ceremony in 1999, some of the burden was lifted from the registrar's office. No longer able to attend the overlapping diploma ceremonies, Retif and his staff of 10,which expands to 16 during the commencement season, limited their work to preparing and delivering diplomas to the schools and colleges whose ceremonies they were unable to work personally. But if you think the work of the registrar became any easier, think again.

"We didn't have anything to do with the actual physical event before," Retif says. "Now, we get the venues and get the stage set. There's audio-visual, lighting, sound cues, talent, music. It's much more of a production."

The work of the registrar's office during commencement, Retif says, can be divided into two parts: the jobs his office has always handled and the jobs his office has taken on in the wake of a unified commencement. The first part begins about three weeks into the spring semester as applications for diplomas begin to trickle in.

The office is responsible for collecting the application of each student expecting to graduate and coding into the computer whether that student will be part of the "marching list" of those intending to take part in his or her diploma ceremony. The marching list can also include participants who received their diplomas in August or December.

A Minnesota-based company prints the diplomas from an electronic file supplied to it by the registrar's office. While the move to electronic data a few years ago greatly improved the accuracy of the diplomas, the registrar's office still proofs each one to make sure the graduate's name is printed correctly and on the correct size of diploma. After the diplomas are proofed, they're sent upstairs to President Scott Cowen, who signs each of the 2,200 diplomas by hand.

Once Cowen is finished with his part, the diplomas are sent back downstairs to the registrar's office to await final grades and certification of honors, which are added to the diplomas in the week prior to commencement. Despite the tight deadline, Retif says adding appropriate honors at the 11th hour is important.

"We used to give a sheet of paper that said 'you got honors and therefore you're not getting your diploma today,'" Retif explains. "We'd send them to the engraver to have them engraved. Well, 40 percent of our students at commencement would have this sheet of paper, and you'd have your best students being disappointed. That's why we went to a system of doing honors in-house. It's one of those last-minute things."

Besides demanding the coordination and preparation of all of the university's diplomas,a process that typically goes to down to the wire,the university commencement brought new challenges. Retif is in charge of the script. He organizes the stage setup and puts together the platform party. His staff counts the number of graduates and faculty members who attend the ceremony to get a historical figure to plan next year's seating.

He coordinates much of the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony, such as the gonfalons, the academic mace and various medals. In addition, the extensive and ever-changing commencement Web site is housed in the registrar's office. The result is a presentation that, despite the occasional miscue and ad lib, goes according to a well-laid plan.

"I've got to follow the entire script and make sure what's supposed to happen is happening," Retif says.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000