One month later: Behind the scenes at Commencement 2017
See photo gallery at the bottom of this story.
Liberty University’s Commencement is traditionally one of the largest events in Central Virginia each year. But this year, records were broken on May 13 as over 50,000 gathered in Williams Stadium to celebrate the achievements of the nearly 19,000 graduates in the Class of 2017.
Planning for Commencement is a massive undertaking — consuming about eight months of the year and requiring a team that works almost solely on event details during the spring semester. While organizing large events and hosting prominent guests is nothing new to Liberty, this year’s Commencement involved considerable coordination with several outside groups to host the keynote speaker, U.S. President Donald J. Trump, who chose Liberty for the first Commencement address of his presidency.
Nearly every university department is involved in Commencement, including the Liberty University Police Department (LUPD), Marketing, External Communications, Transit, University Events, Field Operations, Facilities, Information Technology, Housing, Dining, and the Registrar’s Office, which oversees the planning. Over Commencement weekend, 1,000 staff and volunteers, including 250 students, worked the events across campus, from graduate check-in to the graduate reception, Baccalaureate, the main Commencement ceremony, and the 27 degree presentation ceremonies.
"We welcomed the largest crowd to gather here in Lynchburg at our 2017 Commencement, and everything about it was a success,” said Liberty President Jerry Falwell. “Even the weather, which had really been bad in the days leading up, cleared up just in time. The rain stopped, the clouds parted, and we even got some sunshine."
“Many people told me how well organized they thought everything was,” added Becki Falwell, wife of President Falwell. “This is an emotional day. It’s a day our new grads and their families will never forget. I’m so happy we were able to give them a ceremony worth remembering.”
Lori Baker, associate registrar for operations, said the weekend’s success was “due to the amazing work that our staff did in putting in extra time and effort to make the weekend one that our graduates and guests will cherish.”
“Commencement touches virtually all departments on campus, and each year it is so exciting to see the teams pull together to make things bigger and better for Commencement weekend,” she said. “We continue to outshine ourselves from year to year.”
Kristin Conrad, Vice President of Marketing and Communications, said that Commencement is an excellent example of not only the cooperation of university employees, “but of the body of Christ coming together — people who are using their unique, God-given talents to organize and execute a very large and very special event that will bless our graduates and their families.”
In preparation for the record crowd at the main ceremony at Williams Stadium, Liberty expedited a planned expansion and demolished the visiting locker rooms on the end of the field, adding 8,000 seats.
After a night of rain, hundreds of staff members arrived as early as 5 a.m. to towel off seats inside Williams Stadium so that graduates and their families could have dry seats for the Commencement ceremony. In preparation for poor weather, Liberty had 50,000 ponchos on hand, but fortunately did not need them.
The university rented approximately 80 golf carts to help shuttle guests around campus, and extra buses transported people from distant parking areas to events.
To ensure security, 450 law enforcement members were on campus Saturday, and Liberty rented 6,000 feet of pedestrian barricade to protect the president’s paths and the stage. Liberty also rented 35 metal detectors, about three times the amount used at past events, to quicken the screening process for guests. AT&T and other mobile carriers had trucks on site to boost mobile service.
Inside Green Hall, a security center, manned by multiple levels of law enforcement, was set up with prioritized phone lines and internet. Also, Liberty’s IT department had a cyber security team embedded, working 48 hours over the weekend. During President Trump’s address, a cyber attack on Liberty’s online service was successfully thwarted.