Faces of Convocation: Meet the people who play vital roles in UChicago’s celebration

Meet a bagpiper, University Marshall and planners of the annual event

On June 1, the University of Chicago will celebrate its 538th Convocation. Founding President William Rainey Harper, who addressed the first UChicago graduates in a January 1893 ceremony, was very deliberate in calling the conference of degrees “Convocation,” rather than “commencement exercises” or “graduating ceremonies”; he viewed Convocation as a “calling together” of the University community. Harper believed that receiving a degree was neither a new beginning nor a termination.

Over the years, the format of Convocation has evolved—from unifying the main Saturday Spring ceremony from four sessions to one in 2009, to consolidating quarterly convocation ceremonies in 2015 into a single annual event, held in June. Today, the ceremony is bigger than ever, with the University recognizing thousands of graduates, from undergraduate students in the College, to those within their respective divisions earning master’s degrees and PhDs.

But Convocation doesn’t happen: The singular event takes months of planning, thousands of people to execute a myriad of tasks, and of course, the work of the familiar faces that both graduates and their guests see each year, leading the way for the celebration.

Below, learn about three of those key people involved in the UChicago’s distinctive celebration:

Scott McCawley, Pipe Major of the University of Chicago Pipe Band

For some, it might be difficult to remember a time when bagpipers have not been synonymous with the University of Chicago’s Convocation ceremony. For each year in recent memory, the University of Chicago Pipe Band—with its members wearing their signature UChicago tartan kilts and their festive sounds filling the Main Quadrangles with a piercing drone—leads the capstone procession to open the annual awarding of degrees ceremony in June.

“There is really nothing that equals the sound of the bagpipes,” said Scott McCawley, longtime pipe major of the band. “They travel, the sound travels. The snare drums are so piercing, whatever quad you’re on, it just fills the atmosphere with sounds, and it’s a stirring sound.”

Ironically, what has become an undeniable UChicago tradition was really instituted by chance.

McCawley has been there since the beginning, when the UChicago-affiliated pipe band didn’t even exist. In the mid-1980s, he joined the Invermich Gaelic Society Pipe Band, a civilian band formed in the 1970s. Fellow member George Hillocks Jr., a UChicago professor who taught in the former Department of Education for more than 30 years, was eventually able to get permission for the pipe band to practice in Judd Hall (now part of UChicago’s Laboratory Schools).

Well, it turns out someone on campus heard those droning bagpipes.

“Our first big event was the Centennial in 1992, and one of the first instances we were on parade with the University of Chicago tartan kilts,” McCawley recalled. It was the UChicago Alumni Association that had approached the band, and it would later change its name to the University of Chicago Alumni Association Pipe Band. “We had to buy a bigger drumhead to put all the words on there,” McCawley joked.

The tartan is authentically Scottish. The first run of the unique-to-UChicago cloth and original kilts were made by Scotland’s House of Edgar in 1990 (or so). The band started out playing smaller alumni events, like Homecoming, or other events that would bring them on various quads and outside Rockefeller Chapel. It wasn’t until the mid-90s that the band began playing at Convocations. Later, the band’s presence was requested at the opening Convocation held in the fall for new students, meaning that today, students both enter and leave the University with the beautiful sounds of the bagpipes leading them.

Over the course of 30-plus years, much has changed. Once a fully competitive pipe band housed on campus that traveled to Glasgow, Scotland, for the World Pipe Band Championships in 1987, 1990, 1993, 1996, and 1999, members started to move away, graduate or simply retired. The band’s on-campus presence ended about 2001, and today, McCawley, the pipe major since 1989, is the only original member left.

A Catholic priest by trade who works today as an archivist at the Diocese of Joliet, his love of the pipes, which he’s played since his college days at West Point, keeps the band alive. To fulfill the twice-yearly Convocation-related events these days, he leans on a small corps of regulars and sends out calls for area pipers to fill the ranks.

Because of the turnover in members, the band generally sticks to basic tunes, like Scotland the Brave, The Rowant Tree, Wings, Gardens of Skye, Caberfeidh, and Green Hills of Tyrol, to name a few.

“I’m the last man standing,” said McCawley, who has played in front of five UChicago presidents, beginning with Hanna Holborn Gray, and performed in front of one U.S. President—Bill Clinton, when he spoke at the event in 1999. “I feel this responsibility of continuing it—I’ve been doing it for 30 years.”

“I just hope that everyone appreciates it. I think people do—it’s now a tradition.”

Prof. Victoria E. Prince, University Marshal

For Victoria Prince, Convocation starts when the music begins.

“The opening trumpets start, and sort of everyone goes quiet—they know something is going to happen and you can just feel the anticipation,” said Prince, a professor of organismal biology and anatomy.

Prince, who has served as University Marshal since 2015, also has a front row seat to the pageantry. For the past eight Convocations, Prince has served as the University’s chief ceremonial officer—she leads the ceremony (technically, she walks behind the University of Chicago Pipe Band), silver mace in hand, followed by the flag and gonfalon (University banner) bearers, vice, assistant, and student marshals, the president’s party, including University Trustees, then faculty, and of course, student degree candidates from all the divisions and schools.

Once everyone is seated—it does take some time—Prince officially opens the ceremony and introduces the president to speak.

Prince admits two things: the mace can get quite heavy, and it was nerve-wracking at the beginning.

“I think I was quite nervous at first—I’m not even going to say all the things I was nervous about in case I make them come true,” Prince said, but after eight years (which for a time, included multiple ceremonies throughout the year before Convocation was moved to a single ceremony in June), she’s come to enjoy it.

The role of the University Marshal was first established in 1895 when President William Rainey Harper appointed the honor to lecturer Joseph E. Raycroft of the University’s Department of Hygiene. In UChicago’s early years, the Marshal was a graduate student, but in 1903, the position became an honorable, open-ended appointment for faculty. In addition to both opening and closing the Convocation ceremony, the Marshal also helps select student Marshals—the University’s highest honor for undergraduates.

The University of Chicago Mace was commissioned for the 500th Convocation in 2009, made entirely of sterling silver and bears the University Seal, the Coat of Arms and Latin motto. It can only be handled in white gloves. Prior to the mace, Marshals carried a baton.

While some professors have served as temporary Marshals, Prince marks the 13th individual to serve as a permanent Marshal.

Before Prince, Marshals included Catherine Baumann (director of UChicago’s Language Center), Prof. Emeritus Lorna Straus (whose son, Chris Straus, founded UChicago’s famous Scav Hunt), and the late Prof. Emeritus Robert Ashenhurst, who served the longest tenure of any Marshal at 32 years.

“I was very honored to be asked,” said Prince, whose lab has utilized the zebrafish to study developmental processes since 1997. She credits that selection to her experience in reading the names of Ph.D. candidates when she served as the Biological Sciences Division’s dean of graduate affairs, and, perhaps, her upbringing in Buckinghamshire, England. “I suspect somebody liked my accent, but that’s my suspicion—and it may also have been that I did a halfway decent job with those names,” she joked.

Prince’s duties aren’t complete, of course, until she announces the Convocation ceremony officially closed with its Latin motto: crescat scientia; vita excolatur: Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.

“I actually really love the end as well,” Prince added. “When the undergraduates throw their hats in the air, milling about, looking for their loved ones, giving each other hugs—so I do really love the start, and the end.”

Barbara Siska, executive director, Office of University Events and Ceremonies

You might call them the superheroes of event planning.

How else could you describe the ability to almost flawlessly organize nearly 15 different University of Chicago units, 17+ vendors, and 18,000+ guests for a weekend filled with simultaneous diploma ceremonies and capped by its unified Convocation?

That’s just the task that the Office of University Events and Ceremonies (OUEC) takes on every year, led by its executive director, Barbara Siska. Who’s in charge of the ordering and determining placement of the 30,000 chairs across campus? What about boxing and distributing the lunches for all those guests? How about the construction of tents and stages, and making sure every single graduate gets the correct diploma?

“When I’m faced with a challenge, I ask myself: ‘What would Barb do? (or WWBD),’” said Katelyn Doyle, senior associate director of OUEC, who joined the University in 2019. “Barb exemplifies what it is to be a leader—she’s knowledgeable, passionate, calm, communicates effectively and she’s a visionary. She recognizes that each of us brings our own strengths and skillsets to our role, and she can harness it to create an amazing team.”

It's all part of the 10-month planning process taken on by Siska’s team, a small but mighty crew of special events professionals that plan and execute events for the Office of the President, Provost and other departments at the University.

Convocation, of course, is the team’s largest event of the year.

In 2017, the single-weekend job became even harder due to the growth of the College, when UChicago moved from a single College ceremony to hosting eight simultaneous college ceremonies, organized by residential house.

“This meant that the footprint of the event logistics grew exponentially,” said Siska, who enters her 10th year at the University. This year, the team—in coordination with the College—is hosting nine College ceremonies at nine different locations—Ratner Athletics Center; Midway Plaisance Skating Rink plus areas designated Northeast, Central, and Northwest; the Main Quad, the Rubenstein Forum; Stagg Field, and the Campus South Athletic Field. That doesn’t include the more than a dozen divisional and school ceremonies for master’s and doctoral students, held anywhere from the Harper and Bartlett Quads to the Logan Center, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, and Ida Noyes Hall (to name just a few).

Planning meetings consist of 40 people or more, as vendors that handle catering, print materials, tv screens, equipment rental, sanitation, and table dressings must align with University units and departments like the Registrar’s Office (for the diplomas), Safety and Security (including UCPD, parking and shuttle transportation, etc.), Emergency Management, Athletics, Facilities, and Information Technology. In total, there are approximately 1,300 people needed to make it all happen, including staff volunteers, student workers, photographer and videographers, security and facilities staff, plus outside vendor workers, from floral sales to golf cart drivers.

“It’s just wonderful to see so many University staff and vendor partners come together to make the day so special for graduates and their families,” Siska said. “Everyone that touches this event knows the importance in making it a success.”

Despite the intense planning, things don’t always go perfectly. But Siska and her team also plan for the backup plan to the plan, too. That was evident in 2021, when a year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the ceremony to go fully virtual, constantly changing protocols regarding in-person limits for events made things even more challenging. Just 10 days before the 17 planned small in-person ceremonies that year, protocols relaxed, and the team quickly pivoted by implementing a ticketing system to add two guests per graduate. That same year, impending severe weather meant three outdoor ceremonies had to be evacuated.

Siska’s team was ready.

“While it was stressful, it was one of my most proud moments for my team, as we were able to take care of our guests, make quick decisions on whether to proceed or move the ceremony to an indoor location, and we made it happen,” she said. “Each site had a different solution, and in the end, all three ceremonies were successfully completed.”

When the weekend concludes, Siska and her team take a moment to celebrate another successful Convocation. But not too long. Following each event, the team debriefs to see what went well, and what can be improved. By August, it’s time to start the planning process again.

“Each year, Convocation presents different challenges, and I’ve learned early in my career, there’s always a solution,” added Doyle. “I need to find it, try it and see how it turns out.”

—Adapted from a story that was first published on the University of Chicago Intranet.