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Dan Taylor discusses how he balances teaching full time with being chairman of Tech’s commencement committee.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Dan Taylor is chairman of the commencement committee at Virginia Tech. He is also a professor of agricultural economy and conducts research in sustainable economic development domestically and internationally.
Taylor has been volunteering with commencement in some form for nearly 28 years. His current position is an appointment by university president Charles Steger, and Taylor will hold the position until he retires or decides to give up the position.
As the committee prepares for Friday’s festivities, he talked about the challenges — and rewards — of balancing a full-time teaching job with his commencement duties.
?How did you get this position?
Twenty-eight years ago or so, I volunteered to be an usher at commencement. Did that a few times, then the person who was the director of ushers retired from that job. … So he asked me if I’d be willing to do it and I said, OK, I’ll try it. So I did that for quite a few years.
In that position, you’re on the commencement committee, so you start interacting with all the people that really pull the ceremony together. When the chairman of the commencement committee did decide to retire from Tech … he asked me if I’d be interested in taking over as chairperson of the committee.
A core group of people pull the ceremony together. In a lot of ways I feel like almost a figurehead in that I have this great group of people that I work with. We all know what needs to be done, and quick double-checking is all I need to do to make sure everything’s working OK.
The key positions [are] physical plant, police, parking service, president’s office. … Every college including the graduate school has a representative, then representatives from housing for spring, because we house people on campus. Print shop. Then there’ll be class officers, too, and also graduate student representatives. It’s actually quite a large committee in terms of names. ... Then we have guests [like] RMC [private] security people, rescue squad, and we also have somebody from risk management. Big bunch, but there’s about eight or 10 people who are the core group.
?When did you start planning for this spring’s commencement?
Planning probably started in … January of 2012, even though we kind of got sidetracked because of the First Lady [last spring]. … A year and a half is typical, although of course the closer you get, the more intense.
So let’s say there are no big surprises. Then typically we’ll have the first meeting of the committee in September and introduce everybody. … That September meeting kind of [looks at] what were issues from the graduate and undergraduate ceremonies from spring.
One of the things we do not do, which the committee does at some universities, is organize the speakers. The graduate school lines up their speaker and the president’s office lines up the speaker for the undergraduate. … That saves us a tremendous amount of time.
November, we have another meeting and see if there are any issues, maybe some reports of questions raised at the September meeting. This past year is the first time we live-streamed all the ceremonies, and the question was, was it going be worth it, and yeah, it was. … It’s going to become a permanent function.
That’s often how we do things, make a little change and see how it works.
The December meeting is where everybody comes, like rescue squad and RMC, and I’ll run through every group and say, Are there any issues? … January we don’t meet, February we meet, skip March and then meet April and May.
?Is there a particular time that stands out as different, or a challenge?
We used to, if it got rained out in the [Lane] stadium, move to the [Cassell] coliseum. One time we didn’t have much notice, and you can imagine … people weren’t happy. Because of those events, the decision was made if it rains and we have to cancel, it’s canceled. … We either do it in the stadium or we don’t. And rain’s not going to stop us. Lightning will, rain won’t. So that was kind of the worst thing.
When you walk around and see the parents coming in and see, feel, the pride they have in their graduates — for me that’s the best, most memorable part of the ceremony.
I at one point decided you need to take a somewhat laid-back attitude because if something goes wrong, what are you going to do? I basically came up with the analogy it’s like a wedding. There’s only a few people there that are going to know if something didn’t go quite exactly as planned, and sure enough there’ve been little glitches on more than one occasion that people that planned it had a heart attack, but I can guarantee you that nobody in the audience knew there was anything wrong.
It could drive you crazy if you let it get to you too much.
?How do you fit it into the rest of your university life?
I teach and research full time. … It’s not as time-consuming as one might imagine because we have a good team. And we all do our jobs. Everybody does their part so nobody has to sit around and worry about what the other person is doing.
?Does the committee work with a budget?
Yes, there is a budget, and no, I don’t know what it is — another thing that fortunately takes some of the burden off of the committee. The budget is managed by the president’s office, and the president’s office has the decision on what to do in terms of additional requests for something that’s going to cost.
The two things that could make this a tremendously involved, time-consuming job would be if we had to manage the budget and had to deal with the speakers, too. So fortunately from my perspective we don’t. Really we are largely logistics, policy-oriented in terms of what goes on at the ceremony. And again we are an advisory committee to the president’s office, so we don’t make the final decision about what happens at the ceremony, but we make sure that at least the mechanism is functional.
I don’t know how much it costs, but it’s not inexpensive, let’s put it that way.
?What else should people know about your job?
This is actually probably the most fun thing I do in my job, next to teaching. It really is a lot of fun to work on this. And again I think it’s because it’s such an outstanding group of people and we’re all working together on it, that it really is a fun thing. Everybody will do anything that needs to be done, they’ll volunteer before you even ask them.
For me, anyway, it’s a unique experience. The abilities and dedication to any given effort are going to vary but this one, everybody is 100 percent committed to doing the best possible job. And not only committed, but committed because I like it, because I want to do it, not because I have to do it.
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