Passing the torch
A self-described “snotty, anti-ritual guy” who didn’t attend his own college graduation may seem an unlikely choice for chief marshal of the University. But soon after he accepted the volunteer position in 2008, Mika LaVaque-Manty, PhD ’98, gained a new perspective.
“My attitude about, ‘oh I’m so above ceremonies’ has totally changed,” says the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and director of the LSA Honors Program. “Seeing how excited students are, and how excited their families are, is just so much fun for me.”The University created the chief marshal position around 1883, according to records at the Bentley Historical Library. The role is usually filled by a member of the faculty who helps guide the program to ensure it runs smoothly; marshals often help hood graduates, provide directions, answer questions, and escort graduates to their seats during the commencement ceremonies.
LaVaque-Manty volunteered as chief marshal at the request of Linda Gregerson, the Caroline Walker Bynum Distinguished University Professor of English and director of the MFA Program. She was going on sabbatical for the year, so LaVaque-Manty thought he was merely filling in. Then he received a letter from the provost congratulating him for accepting the three-year post. Fortunately, says LaVaque-Manty, he had an ideal role model in Gregorson and felt prepared.
Spring Commencement in Michigan Stadium is a high-visibility and lively event that can get a little rowdy, and it’s here where the marshal helps control the crowds while treating everyone with respect. “It’s a serious but a celebratory event,” LaVaque-Manty says. “It’s fun, but [we’re] not going to the beach or a party, and the marshal’s responsibility is to balance the social aspect of the event.”
A new beginning
Though he dismissed his own undergrad commencement and U-M doctoral ceremonies as meaningless at the time, LaVaque-Manty began to see things differently while teaching at the University of Washington. He was in his first faculty position there and presided as faculty marshal three times.
“My then-chair asked if I’d volunteer to serve,” he recalls. “And I joked, ‘Sure, if you buy me the University of Michigan PhD robe,’ and he said, ‘Well, it’s two days until the end of the fiscal year. If you get me a receipt tomorrow, I’ll pay for it.’
“This is where I realized how much graduation matters for the students, their families, and especially those that are first-generation graduates.”
As U-M’s chief marshal, LaVaque-Manty now is preparing for April 29 spring ceremony. It’s one of the most “enthusiastic” experiences he oversees on campus with more than 7,500 graduates and their families generating outsized excitement in the stands. And while graduate and doctoral ceremonies at Hill Auditorium may be more “solemn,” LaVaque-Manty says he loves “the academic pomp” the graduate ceremonies always deliver.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the chief marshal role is getting to experience the speakers and their inspiring presentations up close, he says. In 2010, when former U.S. President Barack Obama delivered the commencement keynote, more faculty marshals volunteered than ever before.
“Everybody suddenly was like, ‘Oh I’ve always wanted to do this,'” LaVaque-Manty says. “But people didn’t realize they couldn’t get to the robing room with President Obama and take selfies. I knew I didn’t get to do that because I was on the field.”
There are plenty of other meaningful opportunities to make memories at these events, he notes. In 2015, the University bestowed an honorary degree on the elderly Rep. John Dingell Jr., D-Dearborn, the longest-serving member of Congress in history.
LaVaque-Manty identified a colleague who would be thrilled to push the politician’s wheelchair. “I knew this faculty member really admired [Dingell,] so I paired him to do this assignment.”
Time marches on
LaVaque-Manty reflects on his years as chief marshal with a sense of fulfillment. He enjoyed the work and the challenges it brought, he says, and he’ll always remember the pride he shared with the graduating classes – and his colleagues who participated in the events.
“In addition to all the other reasons, I loved marshaling, I have loved working with the U-M staff,” he says, citing partners in the Office of University Development, as well as Michigan Media, Michigan News, Michigan Photography, DPSS and the teams who manage facilities and events. “All those people play a huge role and have been wonderful collaborators for me. We often forget the amazing professionals that keep the university running and who really care about this place, our students and other people.”
LaVaque-Manty began volunteering as a faculty marshal in 2002 and has been the chief marshal of the university since 2008. Once he completes final duties, he will pass the torch to John Pasquale, the Donald R. Shepherd Clinical Associate Professor of Conducting, director of Michigan Marching and Athletic Bands and associate director of bands.
(Lead image of Professor Mika LaVaque-Manty, PhD ’98, by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.)
Kyle Smith - 1979
My graduation was at Crisler. We sat in the cheap seats and got to stand up when they announced the graduation of the entire class of 1979. I personally thought it stunk.
Mary Weadock - 1967
As a transfer student from the University of Dayton, having married a man with deep University of Michigan roots, it was daunting to be at such a large university. It didn’t take me long to embrace the Maize and Blue and all the was wonderful about the university, the campus, and its academic prowess, and the amazing athletic programs.
Having only a few semesters to complete my degree in Education, my graduation was in August of 1967 in Hill Auditorium. Thus, due to a summer graduation, I missed being able to experience graduation in Michigan Stadium. But, my degree from the University of Michigan is something I have treasured all these years and still get chills as my husband and I walk the campus and attend various events.
Thank you, University of Michigan!