Campus & Community

The Big Picture

3 min read

Grace Scheibner: Commencement conductor

Grace Scheibner
Cecil B. DeMille has nothing on Grace Scheibner.

Each June, Scheibner directs scholarly stars, visiting dignitaries, musicians and entertainers, a horse or two, and 32,000 extras in an epic production of “Ten Commandments” scale.

Unlike Cecil B., Scheibner has no dress rehearsal, no indoor soundstage (please don’t mention rain), and at least 32,000 opportunities for something to go wrong.

The good news? The script of her show – the venerable Morning Exercises of Harvard Commencement – has remained largely unchanged since 1642.

“I like the challenge of large and I like the challenge of special,” says Scheibner, for whom director of Commencement is a year-round job that becomes round-the-clock as the weather warms. By May, her office in Wadsworth House is lined with planning calendars and crimson folders. Color-coded charts indicating precise seating and marching orders – literally – surround her desk like foam-core fencing.

“When it comes to logistics, there is no ambiguity,” she says. “You don’t assume anything in this job.”

Scheibner claims no secret tricks, just some essential skills – finely tuned intuition and a well-oiled ability to plan, prioritize, and remain calm amidst chaos – honed by more than 20 years of managing special events. And Commencement at Harvard is a team effort, she stresses, focusing the resources of all 13 Houses and 11 Schools as well as key partners like Facilities Maintenance Operations and the Harvard University Police Department.

Still, says Scheibner, she is “in the trenches,” overseeing the construction of the massive Tercentenary Theatre tent one day, attending to the requests of Honorary Degree recipients the next, counting and aligning chairs until the last possible moment. One especially windy Commencement morning found her taping programs to seats at dawn.

This will be the 10th Commencement Scheibner has organized, but her first ceremony remains her favorite: For that one she donned a black robe rather than her trademark white to receive the A.L.B. in psychology from the Harvard Extension School.

“I’ll never forget that Commencement,” she says of the 1990 exercises, “I thought it was the most wondrous ceremony.”

Her career in bilingual counseling, in which she intended to use the Spanish she picked up while living in Mexico for 14 years, never materialized. After she graduated, Harvard tapped her event-planning prowess for several large conferences and then, in 1993, for Commencement. Yet her psychology studies, which she continues as a graduate student, serve her well as each June nears and the pressure mounts.

“This isn’t just about details and logistics, this is also about people,” she says, adding that Commencement, while a happy occasion, is also a stressful one, as students prepare to leave one life and begin another.

Scheibner’s passion for her work is palpable; a decade of service has not diminished her abiding love and respect for her alma mater and employer.

“I try very hard to give back to Harvard some of what Harvard has given to me in the form of education,” she says. “Every single year, when I’m out there, and I hear the band and I see the students marching in … I can’t help it, but I am moved. There’s always at least one tear in my eye.”