GAZETTE: What years stand out to you as milestones for starting or evolving some of the traditions we know as Commencement traditions today?
SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: Well, music was added to the ceremony in 1781 — that year, Commencement was opened by an anthem performed by collegiate musicians, and it was the first known concert-making at a Commencement. And a little later, in 1799, was the first time a Harvard president gave a Commencement address in English instead of in Latin.
In the 1860s, the movement had started to change Harvard into a private university [from a public college]. Eighteen sixty-five was the last time the Massachusetts governor presided over the Harvard Board of Overseers and thus Commencement; after that, the governor was always invited as a guest. That was when Harvard started to move into becoming a major university, and after that, Commencement became more like the Commencement we know today.
GAZETTE: Since the mid-1800s, Harvard has had guest speakers at Commencement, so the University has hosted an impressive list of scholars and dignitaries through the years. Do you have any favorite stories about particularly notable guests?
SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: There were two different years in the 1940s that were interesting. At the June 1941 Commencement, there was a special convocation ceremony of the University of Oxford to present President Franklin Roosevelt with an honorary degree of civil law. That brought the chancellor of Oxford, who was also the British ambassador to the United States, to Harvard. It was the first Oxford convocation ceremony ever held on U.S. soil.
Two years later, in 1943, Harvard returned the exchange with an honorary degree for Winston Churchill. They held a rare, “out of season” additional September Commencement ceremony, and Churchill gave a speech at Harvard, but it was a secret until the day of the ceremony. Churchill had entered the U.S. through Canada, and there was a secret committee handling his arrangements in Cambridge, because this was during World War II, and Churchill was a target. You can only imagine the commotion in Harvard Square once people knew he was there.
GAZETTE: Have any speeches given at Harvard on Commencement weekend become well-known in their own right?
SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: Yes. The two speeches that really stand out to me are the “Marshall Plan” address from Secretary of State George Marshall in 1947 about the need for American assistance in reviving Europe’s postwar economy, and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy’s 1956 speech urging academics and politicians to work together in the wake of McCarthyism and a “Red Scare” that targeted many academics.
These were both moments when people chose to make announcements at Harvard, knowing the Harvard community would be an audience who’d be interested, but also knowing that the moment would be newsworthy. People give Commencement speeches for different reasons and use the opportunity in different ways, and it was very clear with both Marshall and Kennedy that they chose Harvard Commencement specifically for their announcements.