Campus & Community

Commencement marked by solemnity, joy … sunshine!

long read

Gown-gown issues

On Commencement Day, what’s under those black gowns? Don’t ask. But an informal survey of Harvard College footwear revealed high heels, sandals, running shoes, dress shoes for men (rare), and — most of all — flip-flops, the 21st century’s footwear for all occasions.

A black gown is a black gown is a flowing black gown. But some fresh-minted Harvard graduates chose to make their own fashion statements. For neckwear some chose Hawaiian leis; others, streamers of yellow caution tape. On one mortarboard was a blowup Aladdin’s lamp, flopping backward. On another, one graduating princess had affixed a silver tiara. It was stuck on with Scotch tape.

Lag time

With the crowds in Tercentenary Theatre serving as an effective roadblock, the academic procession into the theater for the Morning Exercises proceeded slowly. So slowly, in fact, that when the Memorial Church bells tolled 10 a.m. and the high sheriff of Middlesex County waggled his staff and did his convening thing, a line of graduating seniors still extended into the Old Yard.

Hailing from Adams House, as the Convening of the Morning Exercises gave way to the “Star Spangled Banner” and then the prayer, the seniors grimaced and waited patiently — mostly. Several students couldn’t help notice that their own graduation ceremonies were beginning without them, with one saying loudly, “Can’t they SEE we’re not IN?” and “Stop!”

Finally, 10 minutes late and partway into the Latin Salutatory, the last senior shuffled past the temporary white fence marking Tercentenary Theatre.

A slow commencing

The delay probably stemmed from the crowds in Tercentenary Theatre, but getting off to a late start may not have helped. At 8:45 a.m. when the procession was beginning to form in the Old Yard, the area looked strangely empty. Though the faculty, dignitaries, and President’s Division were there, gathered between Massachusetts and Harvard halls, there were no Harvard seniors, leaving a large stretch of the Yard normally clogged with black-robed students empty.

One of the class marshals emceeing from stands around the Yard questioned over the loudspeaker: “Perhaps we’re going to have a Harvard Commencement without Harvard seniors.”

Not to worry, however. A few moments later, the seniors came filing out of the Memorial Church, where they had been attending the morning service for seniors.

Take two

For some Harvard College graduates, Thursday’s Commencement Exercises were an exercise in amateur filmmaking. In line on the way to folding chairs in the Tercentenary Theatre, one videotaped a friend, who turned to say about his time in school. “Not too long, not too short.” He added, after a pause, “Well, maybe too long.”

Faust! Faust! Faust!

When the academic procession began, the graduating seniors’ opinion of Harvard’s incoming president Drew G. Faust became apparent. Faust, who walked with Provost Steven E. Hyman, drew cheers and applause as she moved along the path between lines of graduating seniors.

In a couple of spots, the president-designate stopped to pose for pictures and students broke into chants of “Faust! Faust! Faust!” causing an observing marshal to comment: “I think our President-elect Drew Faust is causing quite a commotion, as well she should.”

‘We are the world’

During Commencement, graduates of the John F. Kennedy School of Government burst into raucous cheers when Richard Lawrence Robert Crowder M.P.A. ’07 took the stage to intone the Graduate English Address. They waved and bounced and threw plastic blowup models of the globe (made in China), filling the air with pale blue orbs.

Something, something, something, math:

Provost Steve Hyman spoke for all of us Thursday morning during the awarding of the honorary degree to mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck, professor and Sid W. Richardson Foundation Regents Chair in Mathematics at the University of Texas, Austin.

In listing Uhlenbeck’s accomplishments, Hyman mentioned her work advancing the theory of “stable vector bundles” and probing the “dimensional reduction of anti-self dual equations” and noted that she even “proved the existence of good local representatives for coulomb gauges.”

For most in the audience, of course, Hyman could have said “goshnard iplex fraggat” and gotten the same level of understanding. Realizing how incomprehensible Uhlenbeck’s work is to the layman, Hyman let the audience off the hook:

“If, like me, you’re not quite sure of what I just said, suffice it to say that she’s one of the most accomplished mathematicians of her generation.”

A king, not a chamberlain, on the court

The awarding of honorary degrees at Harvard is notable not only for the accomplishments of the recipients, but for the clever, often humorous, summations of the recipients’ accomplishments delivered by the Harvard president awarding the degree.

Very likely this year’s favorite went to longtime Boston Celtic Bill Russell, center on 11 championship teams, five-time league most valuable player, and 12 times an NBA All-Star. Russell, whose accomplishments also extend to working for equality off the court, was known for his fierce on-court rivalry with NBA great Wilt Chamberlain. That fact was included in President Derek Bok’s description of Russell as he awarded the honorary doctor of laws:

“William Felton Russell: a Rembrandt of roundball whose championship rings are enough to outnumber his fingers. A peerless team player whose skill and tenacity led even his strongest foes to Wilt.”

For those of you who might be interested …

In later years, some might say they graduated from Harvard in 2007. Others might say “in June 2007.” A few might actually say “on June 7, 2007.” But for those very few who care about the ultimate precision — the moment of official Commencement — here are the exact times degrees were conferred on Thursday: Ph.D.s, 10:39 a.m.; master’s degrees, 10:41 a.m.; University Extension, 10:42 a.m.; Dental, 10:47 a.m.; Medical, 10:48 a.m.; Divinity, 10:50 a.m.; Law, 10:51; Business, 10:53 a.m.; Design, 10:54 a.m.; Education, 10:56 a.m.; Public Health, 10:57 a.m.; and Government, 10:59 a.m. And for those of you who care, William H. Gates finally got a degree (LL.D.) from Harvard at 11:38 a.m. on June 7, 2007.

Tidy M.D.s

The sheriff of Middlesex County, in sonorous tones, adjourned the morning Commencement exercises at 11:43 a.m. — prompting an exit of graduates who were much faster filing out than filing in. Thousands of folding chairs were suddenly empty, but plenty of litter was left behind: newspapers (something to read during the speeches?), hundreds of plastic water bottles, discarded programs, latex gloves blown up like balloons, banana peels, a Capezio dancewear bag, and on one chair — can someone say why? — three white candles. One observation: Of all the sections vacated, recipients of medical degrees left theirs the neatest.

Quick turnaround

As peerless as the work crews that toil in Harvard Yard during Commencement Exercises are each year, this year they had a particular challenge. When the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) wrapped up sometime around 4 p.m., HAA President Paul Finnegan announced that the crews had to get Tercentenary Theatre — clogged with people, paper, and chairs — ready for another event, and fast:

“Harvard is extending a warm welcome to the Cambridge Rindge & Latin School as they celebrate their graduating senior class. This ceremony will be held right here beginning at 6:30,” Finnegan said, unable to suppress a smile. “Our remarkable operations crew will now be getting this space ready for that ceremony.”

Remarkable, indeed.

Last visit

In 1943, as a freshman at Radcliffe College, Arline Wyner Prigoff ’47 decided on chemistry as a concentration. “I was the only female in the classes I was in,” and switched to economics, she said Thursday, pausing in Harvard Yard before the start of a procession of graduates into Tercentenary Theatre. The memories are fond, she said, and Commencement Day — her 60th anniversary as a graduate — is grand, “but this is probably the last time I’ll come.” Prigoff retired last year after 20 years as a social work professor at California State University, Sacramento. Her passion for social causes came from Harvard, said Prigoff, “after I joined the John Reed Society.”

The Kennedy School’s secret recipe

Julie Boatright Wilson, the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s associate academic dean, let slip the School’s secret to success during the Commencement Exercises in JFK Park between the University’s Morning and Afternoon Exercises.

When the last degree was handed out, Wilson closed the ceremony and ushered people to lunch, saying the School strives to admit only the best students, choosing “superior” people with great promise. The School then brings those students together, lets them learn from each other, with the faculty trying to interfere with this process as little as possible. After an appropriate amount of time, Wilson said, the School awards these superior students a degree, and “We then take complete credit for all their subsequent success.”

Flying fingers

During Commencement, Marie Trottier, the University disability coordinator, stood at the head of the section labled with a handicapped symbol, making sure everything was going smoothly. Commencement week requires multiple preparations on Trottier’s part, ranging from accommodations for wheelchair users (a group that this year included Pulitzer Prize-winning news commentator Charles Krauthammer) to special services for the sight and hearing impaired.

“We always handle things request by request,” Trottier said. “We never know what kinds of services we’re going to have to provide.”

This year, one of the services requested was that of court reporter Jonathan Young, who provided a nearly instantaneous written version of the Commencement speeches. Fingers flying over the keys of his steno machine, Young caused a transcription of every word uttered on stage to appear on the screen of a laptop computer. From an onlooker’s point of view, the speed and accuracy of his work seemed astonishing, although to Young, it was all in a day’s work. Nor did he have time for compliments.

“Sorry, I’ve got to move on to another job at the Business School,” he said, hurriedly packing up his equipment.


A man in a marshal’s morning suit and top hat was wearing a tag that said in bold print, “Bill Gates.” Funny, he didn’t look like Bill Gates. Or did he just happen to have the same name as the software billionaire? Neither. The man was Alexander Tilt, class secretary of the Class of 1977. He and his fellow class members were wearing their former classmate’s name somewhat in the manner of Red Sox fans wearing jerseys imprinted with names such as “Ortiz” and “Varitek” — a way of honoring an admired player.

“We still think of him as a member of our class,” Tilt said of the wildly successful dropout.

To demonstrate the class’ support of Gates, Tilt had purchased 200 crimson “Class of 1977” baseball caps at the Harvard Coop and distributed them to members. At the moment Gates stepped up to receive his honorary degree, the class members planned to toss the caps high in the air.

But as it turned out, enthusiastic support is one thing and timing is another. Half the class responded at the moment Gates’ name was announced, while the other held off until the actual passing of the sheepskin. To make matters worse, there seemed to be a general reluctance to fling the caps with true abandon. Perhaps the class members were too eager to hang onto them as souvenirs. At any rate, half of them merely waved them in the air while the rest tossed them, but only so high that there was no chance of missing them as they came down.

Hopefully the class found other ways of assuring their most famous member that they were still proud of him despite his abdication.

Good luck with that

After delivering his Commencement speech at the afternoon ceremonies, Bill Gates ducked into a room in the basement of the Memorial Church for a news conference. The room was crowded with reporters, photographers, and videographers, and for 15 minutes, Gates fielded questions about his experiences as a Harvard student, his career as an entrepreneur, and his more recent work as a philanthropist. After Gates left, freelance photographer Mike Quan triumphantly brandished a half-empty soda bottle. “Look,” he said, “Bill Gates’ Diet Coke! I’m going to sell it on eBay and finance my son’s education!”