Bacow expressed pride at how Harvard has so far come through what he termed “the vexing present” in welcoming comments recorded in the Yard outside of Massachusetts Hall, the University’s oldest building. Harvard, he said, has weathered many upheavals in its long history, which offers perspective on the current crisis.
“This, too, shall pass. A global pandemic has kept us apart this year, but we’ve learned together; we’ve grown together; and we have overcome together. I’ve never seen such grit, such determination, and I have never, ever been prouder of this institution,” said Bacow, who was infected with the coronavirus early in the pandemic and, in his Thursday speech, said he hadn’t been back to his Massachusetts Hall office for 440 days, and counting.
Bacow offered a tongue-in-cheek counterpoint to disappointment that might stem from the virtual event, saying that, unlike traditional Commencement Days, this one required no stressing over tickets to accommodate family members who wanted to attend, no struggle for parking in an overcrowded Harvard Square, and “zero percent chance of rain.”
Bacow also pointed out that graduates were able to sit with family members at a ceremony that would have been impossible without the support of family, friends, and others who aided each graduate along the way.
“No one accomplishes anything in life on his or her own. Your loved ones have nurtured and supported you on this journey that has led you to this day,” Bacow said. “This moment is meant for you and will be yours forever.”
Though virtual, the ceremony included several traditional trappings of Commencement Day, including the gathering being called to order by the high sheriff of Middlesex County, followed by the tolling of Memorial Church’s bells.
Seven honorary degrees were awarded, and three student orators delivered traditional addresses. Jordan Bliss Perry, who delivered the Undergraduate Latin Address (subtitled in English for those whose Latin was rusty), spoke of the class’ pandemic journey and how scientists have rescued us. But he also credited the arts, through the books we read and shows we binged, for helping to get us through. The Undergraduate English Address was delivered by Silvana Gómez and drew on her own experience as a first-generation college student and the need to continue the fight against inequality once the graduates leave campus. The Graduate English Address was given by Vincent H. Bish Jr. from the Graduate School of Education and dealt with the legacy of slavery, both in America and at Harvard, and the obligation graduates have to the memory of the enslaved to continue to fight for equality.
The program was steeped in music, from the opening and closing strains by the Harvard Band to mid-program renditions of “Stand by Me” by Devon Gates, a social anthropology concentrator and member of the class of 2023, to an original composition by Jeremy Faust, an instructor in emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School and physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The hopeful lyrics, performed by doctors, nurses, and students of HMS and its affiliated hospitals, spoke to the progress in the U.S. pandemic, of winter passing, flowers growing, and how “the time of singing has come.”
In her remarks, Simmons talked about her experience growing up poor and Black in Texas. School to her was “a miracle,” she said, and she clung to it like a lifeline. She attended Dillard University on a scholarship before earning a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1973 in Romance languages and literatures. She was president of Smith College from 1995 until 2001, when she assumed the presidency of Brown University. She retired after leaving Brown in 2012, but then agreed to take on the leadership of Prairie View A&M, a historically Black university in her home state, in 2018.