A common problem in academic events is determining the correct placement of guests for functions like seated dinners or an order of procession for academic ceremonies. In an environment where titles and tenure – not to mention donors, alumni, and students – are often steadfastly important, making the decision as to how stakeholders are positioned can be a stressful and politically daunting task.
The establishment of a university order of precedence list, then, can become an important tool in order to combat doubt by self or others. While not an easy project to undertake, the end result will be a document that can serve as a reference material for event planners across campus by which they can make many difficult decisions. One can produce a list in three basic steps:
1. Gather a list of everyone who attends your university events. Remember the focus is on job titles or a particularly strong tie to the university’s business. On campus, identification of administrative, faculty and staff position levels can be fairly straightforward, but remember to include other regular event guests such as various boards and their officers, members of giving societies, staff of affiliated entities such as alumni associations or foundations, the student body president, members of giving societies, elected and appointed officials, and more. You should err on the side of having too many groups/titles covered rather than be stuck later wondering where the state’s lieutenant governor will fall in your list, for example.
2. Starting with the president and/or chancellor, start at the top and begin to work your way down, checking off titles as you go. Are your trustees next? Vice presidents? Where does the First Lady or First Gentleman – usually an unofficial position – fit in your list when she or he is not with the president?
A good place to begin making these decisions may be in an order of succession list already established by your university. On many campuses, a hierarchy already has been determined as far as who will run the university in case of emergencies related to those ranked above them. If this is the case, then consider using this as your guide to determine in which order to place your vice presidents and other administration. Deans can be ranked by length of tenure at the institution, size of school of which they are in charge, year of founding of the school of which they are in charge, or a variety of other ways, such as all ranked equally and always placed in alphabetical order (though this may be one place where an order is more easily defined at academic ceremonies like commencement). Faculty have quite clear designations in their titles, but you will need to make decisions regarding the precedence of faculty and staff. For example, how does the director of a large campus department (e.g., communications, athletics) compare to the different levels of faculty? As always, remember that decisions should be made based on university title/rank or affiliation and not on the person(s) currently in those positions. Answers will vary by campus; the point is to answer such questions now so that documentation exists later to justify protocol decisions.
3. Have the list approved by the appropriate persons. Ideally, the list would be created by a working group of individuals and not one person, but attaining sign-off from a key or several key high-ranking individuals will help cement your list in place and make you less susceptible to either alter it yourself or have it altered by someone else. Depending on your campus’ staffing setup, a person like your president’s chief of staff or senior adviser may be a good place to start this process. He or she generally has a good grasp on campus (and elected) politics and can make decisions as to who else should review and approve the listed order.
Creating an order of precedence for a university can be a challenging task. In the long run, however, a clearly defined and preapproved order can save both time and stress (and defend against any challenges) when it comes time to determine that seating arrangement, processional order, speakers list, or other tricky event situation.
Brady K. Miller
2015 PSOW Graduate of Protocol Officer Training and Senior Event Consultant and Creative Director at Stratelyst Creative