When newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry gave his first major policy address on Wednesday, he chose the University of Virginia – founded by the country’s first secretary of state – as his backdrop.
The event, held in Old Cabell Hall, went off without a hitch, thanks in large part to the efforts of many University workers.
Pamela Higgins, director of the Office of Major Events, coordinated the effort, pulling together a team that included the University Police Department, Parking & Transportation, Facilities Management, the Office of Emergency Preparedness, Student Affairs, the Office of University Communications, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost and the Office of the President, as well as the advance team from the Department of State.
“We had five days to organize this,” Higgins said. “We had our first meeting on Friday. The State Department sent down 13 people on Friday; five or six of them were here on Monday, and then they were all here again on Tuesday.”
The U.Va. Arts Box Office printed and distributed tickets via an online lottery, for which 1,895 students, faculty and staff members applied. Other tickets were reserved for invited guests and the use of the State Department.
“More than 78 percent of the seats were used by members of the University community,” Higgins said.
There were many elements to be coordinated, according to Higgins. Facilities Management’s cabinet shop delivered a taller podium for Kerry, and designed, built and installed a hidden drop-down step for President Teresa A. Sullivan. The sign shop produced and affixed a U.Va. logo to the front.
Facilities Management workers removed 54 chairs in the auditorium’s center to accommodate television camera crews and installed a system to protect the exposed chair bolts.
Old Cabell Hall also required a bit of an infrastructure upgrade. Facilities Management electricians located, labeled and diagrammed the building’s electrical circuits, to allow them to reset breakers in the event of a problem with the electric supply. They also provided additional circuits for an array of equipment, including video cameras, light stands, teleprompters, computers for the print media, sound equipment and metal detectors.
A reserved seating area was prepared for special guests, with the Facilities Management workers reinstalling orchestra seats that had been removed for a weekend concert. All of the seating in Old Cabell auditorium was inspected, and damaged or worn cushions were replaced. Damaged plaster in the center of the auditorium was also repaired and repainted.
The sign shop produced and placed directional signage for the South Lawn area outside Old Cabell Hall and set up crowd control barriers near Old Cabell and Cocke halls.
There was a 30-minute window for Kerry’s arrival, and Higgins said he came toward the end of that window.
“He came in, spoke and then left immediately after his speech,” Higgins said. “He had another appointment in Washington.”
Higgins, whose office coordinates large events on Grounds such as Final Exercises, said that an event on the scale of the Kerry visit occurs on Grounds every three or four years.
“We pull together many of the team members that we would have for a smaller event,” Higgins said, “but this one was done on such a short time frame.”
The team had to work around the events already scheduled on Grounds. Higgins said that classes scheduled for Old Cabell Hall on Wednesday morning were moved elsewhere.
“The Registrar’s Office worked with Wynne Stuart, associate provost for academic support and classroom management, to relocate 16 classes,” Higgins said. “But then everything returned to normal after 1 p.m.”
Higgins said she looks forward to doing another event such as this.
“We have a very strong team here. The State Department team told me before they left that we were very accommodating to them and did a lot more for them than other places.”
The University Police Department handled many aspects of security for the Kerry visit. “We were not the lead agency here,” Capt. Michael Coleman said. “We have a support role and we put our resources where the State Department’s security details wants us.”
Coleman said the State Department supplied a detail of agents to protect Kerry, supplemented by 25 University Police officers and four University security officers.
Kerry’s motorcade came to Poe Alley and he was escorted to the Colonnade Club, where he met with Sullivan and others. From there, Kerry and the president were escorted down the Lawn to Old Cabell Hall, passing in front of Rouss Hall.
“The biggest containment problem we had was along the sidewalk from Pavilion VII to Old Cabell,” said Capt. Don McGee of the University Police Department. “We had posted some people there and had to beef them up because of the foot traffic on the Lawn.”
The University Police were also involved in the motorcade that escorted the secretary’s car. There were three motorcycles from the Charlottesville Police Department, two from Albemarle County, one from the University and three from the Virginia State Police.
The University Police and Facilities Management were also involved in the preparations. Ryan Taylor, Facilities Management’s central Grounds zone superintendent, met with State Department advance and security teams to review facilities, systems and access.
“We walked the area with them, to see what the approaches are and the alternate routes and examine the building, look at the exits and figure out access control,” Coleman said.
The University Police worked closely with State Police and the Albemarle Country Police, Coleman said. “Some of it can be as simple as radio use,” he said. “We all have radios, but they operate on different frequencies. We have to provide them with our frequencies so they can communicate directly with us.”
Coleman said the University Police were involved in the building searches, using canine units from the University, Albemarle, Hanover County and the State Department to sniff out possible threats.
Coleman said his department is used to dealing with high-profile visitors. “A lot of people pop in, and we have this sort of thing at least a couple of times a year,” he said.
In recent years, the University has been the backdrop for an educational summit that drew governors from all 50 states and President George H.W. Bush, a meeting of Nobel Peace Prize laureates and a visit from the former president of Iran.
“If you go back far enough, in 1976 we had the Queen of England visit here,” Coleman said.
He also noted that the children of many famous and/or important people have attended school at U.Va., and in some of those cases, parental visits become security concerns.
“We have guests on a pretty regular basis,” he said.