Some things never change about Commencement: the hordes of parents, a sea of black and crimson robes, throngs of excited seniors loitering nervously in towering heels or stiffly collared shirts.
And, for as long as most people involved in the ceremony can remember, Mike Lichten has been among them, taking on the daunting task of shepherding graduates on the big morning.
“It turns out they’re not all that interested in regimentation,” he said with a wry smile.
If Commencement is about tradition, and tradition depends on continuity, then Lichten is one of the living symbols of Harvard’s annual Morning Exercises.
Every year for the past quarter-century, Lichten has donned a cap and gown and reported for duty at 6:45 a.m. to serve among the marshal’s aides, a group of Commencement volunteers who direct guests and lead the procession of graduating students into Tercentenary Theatre.
“He’s one of those unsung heroes,” said Grace Scheibner, the University’s Commencement director.
Lichten oversees the rear Houses — this year, Winthrop, Adams, Cabot, Currier, Dudley, and Dunster — as the participants walk from the John Harvard Statue around University Hall and file into their seats. But he has also taken on an informal role as senior adviser among the marshal’s aides after so many years.
“As Grace says, I’m one of the few people who knows what everyone is supposed to be doing and where they’re supposed to be,” Lichten said.
Lichten came to Harvard in 1981 from Denver to handle the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ (FAS) energy conservation efforts, but moved into the job of Commencement director three years after he arrived.
In 1986, the year of Harvard’s 350th anniversary celebration, he took on the task of having a new tent designed and built for Tercentenary Theatre.
“It was originally a very old-style canvas tent, like a circus tent, and when it rained it would puddle,” he said. “Sometimes it would get so heavy we’d send a tradesman out with a long pole with a knife on the end to cut a hole in it and release all the water.”
The new tent design allowed for a center span of 60 feet between poles, mimicking the outriggers of a sailboat mast. It is still in use, and will keep President Drew Faust, the honorary degree recipients, and major guests dry if it rains.
In 1987, Lichten gave up his official Commencement planning role to become the director of operations for FAS’s Office of Physical Resources and Planning, where he is now associate dean. He oversees FAS’s space planning, construction management, and operations teams and has helped orchestrate the building of the New College Theatre, the Center for Government and International Studies, the Laboratory for Integrated Science and Engineering, and Queen’s Head Pub, among other projects.
But Commencement remains a special time for Lichten. “I just like being part of this celebration of the students’ four years of working so hard,” he said. “It’s a fun day, and it’s a little bit different from everyday work.”
Lichten has seen a lot of Commencement speeches over the years, but Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s 2008 address on the “benefits of failure” remains his favorite.
“Here you’d think having the president of a country [speak] would really strike you as impressive, but I thought hers was just the greatest speech,” he said.
He’s also lived through plenty of minor mishaps — perhaps unsurprising given that there are no practice runs for the Commencement procession. At the University’s 350th anniversary celebration, Lichten had to deliver a message from the chief of police to the University’s general counsel, who was already sitting up on the platform. As Lichten crawled over a row of dignitaries in their seats, he tripped over a stray foot and nearly fell on then-Secretary of State George Shultz as Schultz was approaching the podium to speak.
“I didn’t knock him over, but it stuck in my memory for a long time,” he said.
But Lichten doesn’t mind the occasional flub. At Commencement, celebration bordering on chaos is the point.
“I don’t think anyone notices except me,” he said.