Campus & Community

Notes on the evolution of a ceremony

7 min read

Aug. 27, 1640*

Civil and religious officials of the Bay Colony invite Henry Dunster to become “President of the Colledge.” He accepts. Harvard gains its first president. No formal installation is held.

* Dated by the Julian calendar. The modern Gregorian equivalent is Sept. 6.

Dec. 10, 1672*

Leonard Hoar, Class of 1650, is formally installed as Harvard’s third president and the first to have graduated from the College.

* Dated by the Julian calendar. The modern Gregorian equivalent is Dec. 20.

Jan. 14, 1707 – 08*

John Leverett, Class of 1680, is formally installed as Harvard’s seventh president and the first layman to hold the position. The essential ceremony associated with Harvard presidential installations originates with Leverett’s inauguration. Records of the day reveal that the affair is rather spartan: after a short Latin oration by Gov. Dudley, Leverett responds in kind and is handed the keys, Charter, and seal as emblems of his office.

During the inaugural feast, the Harvard Corporation and some 50 guests consume 146 pounds of beef, pork, and mutton; 14 fowls and four turkeys; 19 apple and mince pies; and 16 gallons of wine. Two pounds of tobacco also go up in smoke.

* Dated by the Julian calendar for 1707. The modern Gregorian equivalent is Jan. 25, 1708.

Sept. 28, 1737*

Edward Holyoke, Class of 1705, is formally installed as Harvard’s ninth president. Records of his inauguration on this day provide the earliest evidence of the singing of Psalm 78 (“Give Ear, My Children”), the now traditional Commencement psalm, at Harvard.

* Dated by the Julian calendar. The modern Gregorian equivalent is Oct. 9.

June 2, 1829

At Commencement, Josiah Quincy, Class of 1790, is formally installed as Harvard’s 15th president. For the last time in the history of Harvard presidential inaugurations, the governor of the commonwealth and the president of the University greet each other in Latin.


Decorum and civility erupt into a student riot during the installation of Jared Sparks, Class of 1815, as Harvard’s 17th president. Disgruntled by limited access to events, students register their protests vociferously. According to one newspaper account, the exercises were marked by “much inexcusable sluggishness and delay in the movement of officials.” Another paper reported that the “speeches were horribly long, without possessing any extraordinary compensating merits”; the aisles were crowded with a “heated and panting congregation”; and the singing of the undergraduates was “excruciating and should never be repeated.”

March 4, 1863

At the inauguration of President Thomas Hill, Class of 1843, a new anthem – Domine salvum fac Præsidem nostrum (“God Save Our President”), composed for the occasion by University Organist and Choirmaster John Knowles Paine – receives its first public performance. The anthem is now a regular feature of morning Commencement exercises.

Oct. 19, 1869

The installation of Charles William Eliot, Class of 1853, Harvard’s 21st president, is held in the First Parish Church, across the street from the Yard. While the ceremony is fairly straightforward, it gives Eliot an occasion to launch the University in a new direction and heralds the dawn of a new era in education. Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison writes that Eliot’s speech lasted an hour and three-quarters, during which one “might have heard a pin drop, save when the old arches rang with thunders of applause.”

Oct. 7, 1909

Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, is formally installed as Harvard’s 22nd president in a grand, two-day ceremony. More than 13,000 guests attend the installation in the Old Yard. A chorus of 160 alumni serenades the audience. President Lowell delivers a long address and confers honorary degrees on 30 delegates from institutions around the world. Later that evening, the Boston Symphony Orchestra plays in Sanders Theatre. Undergraduates then march from the Yard to the stadium, each carrying a torch and wearing a red sash. The stadium’s colonnade is festooned with red Japanese lanterns; one set of goalposts is hung with lanterns forming a fiery red H. The undergraduates march twice around the track and assemble to cheer the new president, who responds with a brief speech. The evening is climaxed by fireworks and a blazing set piece in the open end of the stadium that spells out Lowell, Harvard.

Oct. 9, 1933

James Bryant Conant, Class of 1914 (degree 1913), formally assumes duties as Harvard’s 23rd president. America is beset by the Great Depression. Sensitive to the nation’s economic plight and its somber mood, and with a tercentenary celebration just over the horizon, Conant prefers a simple installation that harks back to Leverett’s. Only 150 people are on hand in the Faculty Room of University Hall as the Board of Overseers present Conant with the keys, Charter, and seal. The chairman of the Board of Preachers delivers a short prayer, and Conant replies with a brief acceptance speech, pledging his “entire strength and devotion to the leadership of this community of scholars and students.” The entire ceremony lasts less than an hour.

Oct. 13, 1953

Nathan Marsh Pusey, Class of 1928, is formally installed as Harvard’s 24th president. In the Faculty Room of University Hall, Pusey is vested with the powers and privileges of the presidency. Some 200 guests fill the room to witness an inaugural much like Conant’s. Bowls of red roses brighten the room; sunlight slants through its large windows. Judge Charles Wyzanski Jr. ’27, president of the Board of Overseers, gives the charge.

Pusey pledges “…to try to keep assembled here the very best scholars and teachers that can be found, to work to ensure conditions conducive to their best efforts, and constantly to strive for more effective ways to make their activity touch, quicken, and strengthen the intellectual aspirations of succeeding generations of young people…. Harvard is a great intellectual enterprise founded and nourished in great faith. It shall be my purpose, continuing in that faith, to guide it as best I can, so help me God.”

Oct. 11, 1971

Derek Bok J.D. ’54 formally assumes his duties as Harvard’s 25th president. Given the times, Bok’s installation, the plainest and smallest in Harvard’s modern history, takes place in University Hall’s Faculty Room with 110 guests. Douglas Dillon ’31, president of the Board of Overseers, reads the charge. “I accept this office,” Bok responds, “with the hope that I can help to renew a vision of our future that will rally faculty, students, staff, and alumni to the effort that our special resources permit, and the circumstances of our time require.”

After the installation, the Boks are serenaded by freshmen on the (now removed) fire escape of Weld Hall.

Oct. 18, 1991

Neil L. Rudenstine Ph.D. ’64 is formally installed as Harvard’s 26th president. Rudenstine’s installation concludes a two-day program featuring literary readings and music, special museum and library exhibitions, and faculty symposia. For the finale, Rudenstine opts for an outdoor ceremony, open to all. A downpour dumps an inch of rain on Cambridge the previous night, but the skies clear and the folding seats in Tercentenary Theatre are wiped dry before the afternoon proceedings begin.

In his address, Rudenstine speaks about the need for a University-wide consciousness while urging the Harvard community “to reconcile both our diversity and our common humanity.”

Oct. 11, 2001