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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

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2020 isn’t the first year Harvard’s traditional Commencement Exercises were cancelled or postponed.

The Commencement Exercises typically include thousands of family members, faculty, and alumni crowding Harvard Yard to take part in the celebration of graduating students from the College and Harvard’s graduate schools.

The University announced it would postpone its 369th Commencement Exercises, which were originally scheduled to take place on May 28, due to the global coronavirus pandemic. The scheduled speaker was Washington Post executive editor Martin “Marty” Baron.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow wrote in a message to Harvard affiliates on March 20 that it was with a “heavy heart” that he had to inform them of commencement’s postponement.

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“I love seeing our community come together to celebrate the academic accomplishments of our remarkable students,” he wrote. “I love seeing their families brimming with pride as they participate in a ceremony that is almost as old as the University itself.”

Instead of the typical celebration, the University will confer degrees online until it is able to host the traditional in-person celebration. The postponed ceremony will include “as many of the traditional campus festivities that typically precede commencement as possible,” per the email.

Traditions of Commencement

Harvard’s first commencement, held on Sept. 23, 1642, would have been partially unintelligible to a 21st-century observer. Nine commencers gave speeches and weathered oral examinations in Latin, and former University President Henry Dunster individually bestowed each degree, also delivering a Latin declaration to the overseers.

But, if aurally foreign, large parts of the ceremonies would resonate with contemporary commencements.

There were morning and afternoon exercises; a feast; a procession for the commencers, the Board of Overseers, and Massachusetts colonial officials; humorous and serious speeches alike. And there was a sense of pride—only three years earlier, Harvard had closed its doors to students due to the poor leadership of its first leader, Nathaniel Eaton, who physically abused students and embezzled money from the College.

If the first commencement was a “solemn act,” as one observer described, later commencements in the colonial era were scenes of festivity and, at times, debauchery. The few graduates at the 1703 commencement drank 14 barrels of beer; as one sophomore wrote in his diary on commencement day in 1773, “The College have been chiefly in company drinking to Day and at Night they seem to all be drunkedness and confusion.”

Commencement was, at the time, a festivity for both the College and much of the Massachusetts colony. While soon-to-be Harvard graduates went through morning and afternoon exercises, hundreds of people, many with no formal affiliation to the College, celebrated nearby.

“Imagine tents set up on Cambridge Common for food, dancing, and drinking,” Conrad E. Wright, an editor at the Massachusetts Historical Society who has studied Harvard during colonial times, wrote in an email. “Imagine wrestling competitions, bear-baiting, and gambling. For a day, the local version of Las Vegas.”

Today, the commencement festivities consist of the Morning Exercises and Afternoon Events.

Tercentenary Theatre — the site of the outdoor ceremony — is decorated with the flags of the University’s 12 graduate schools as well as the College's 13 undergraduate houses.

As the Harvard band plays songs, the President’s division, graduating class of seniors, and alumni enter the yard and take their seats. The graduates of Harvard’s professional schools enter from Sever Quadrangle, which served as the original site of the University’s Commencement Exercises until 1946.

The ceremony begins with the sheriff of Middlesex County calling the meeting to order. The chaplain then prays and the University Marshall hands it to the three student speakers: the first address given by a College senior in Latin, the second address given by a College senior in English, and the third address given by a professional degree candidate in English.

Earned and honorary degrees are then conferred by the President. At the 2019 Commencement Exercises, Bacow awarded 6,665 degrees.

Following the degree conferring, graduates return to their individual undergraduate houses or their respective schools for smaller ceremonies, where they receive their individual diplomas and celebrate with their families.

In the late afternoon, the graduates return to Tercenary Theatre for Alumni Exercises, the afternoon program. The program welcomes the graduates into the Harvard Alumni Association.

Commencement in Wartime, Commencement in Plague

Nearly 200 years ago, in 1721, a deadly smallpox outbreak struck the Massachusetts Colony. In Boston alone, more than half the population of 11,000 was infected, and over 850 died. On June 26, the Corporation published a notice in a local newsletter, which stated “that by reason of any danger that may rise from the Small Pox’s spreading,” commencement would be a private affair.

The festivities, anticipated by hundreds of nearby colonists for months, were suddenly and swiftly upended, replaced by a solemn and private ceremony.

The first time a Harvard commencement was cancelled — more than three decades later — was also due to a plague. The College shut down for five months in 1752 in order to protect students from a smallpox outbreak, and with nobody present at the University, the Corporation voted on May 4 to cancel commencement. Instead, students were given a “General Diploma” certifying their graduation.

Commencement was cancelled eight more times in the eighteenth century, and has been held every year since 1780.

A drought, the Seven Years War, and a smallpox outbreak simultaneously struck Cambridge in 1757, putting the city through much physical and financial turmoil and making joyous festivities seem inappropriate. The Corporation voted on June 27 that, “Providences call for humiliation and fasting, rather than festival entertainments.” The class of 1757, too, received “General Diplomas” in place of a ceremony. Seven years later, another smallpox outbreak once again forced Harvard to cancel commencement.

But it was the American Revolution that had the biggest effect on eighteenth-century Harvard commencements.

The war was an especially difficult time for the College, with fighting concentrated in Massachusetts. Local crises leading up to the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775, the siege of Boston in 1776, and other fighting bred general chaos and anxiety, with the College even evacuating to Concord from 1775 to 1776 as American soldiers occupied Harvard buildings.

Battle, coupled with war-induced inflation and other financial uncertainties — John Hancock, then the College’s treasurer, took thousands of pounds of Harvard’s funds with him to Philadelphia when he went to serve in the Continental Congress — meant the College was in no position to host festivities.

Citing “the present dark aspect of our public Affairs,” the Corporation voted in 1774 to cancel commencement. Commencement was cancelled each year up to and including 1780 due to general disorder and uncertainties over renewed fighting in Massachusetts, with the exception of 1779, when the College managed to hold a private ceremony.

Yet students from the Revolutionary period, despite their truncated Harvard experiences, were more engaged in public service than classes before or after the conflict. Before the war, high public offices were generally filled by British officials. After the war, Americans filed government positions and establishing charitable and philanthropic organizations.

“People, including lots of Harvard graduates, jumped at the new opportunities open to them,” Wright wrote. “At the same time, people who had put their lives and careers on the line on the American side could be excited—and patriotic—about the opportunities now in front of them to create something new, different, and enduring.”

Commencement Today

Harvard's Commencement Office sent a message to Harvard affiliates on May 4, detailing the University-wide online events as well as the individual school’s events.

“While we look forward with great anticipation to a time when it is safe for us to honor the members of the Harvard Class of 2020 in person, we hope you will take a moment to gather with the University community online to acknowledge their accomplishments, their creativity, their kindness, and their knowledge,” the message reads.

The May 28 online celebration will include an online University-wide celebration before the individual schools host their respective virtual events. Baron will still speak at the online event, according to University Spokesperson Jason A. Newton.

Erica J. Doran ’05, who serves as the Class of 2005’s secretary, wrote in an email to The Crimson that the Commencement Exercises embody the “spirit, energy, and inspiration of the Harvard community.”

“From iconic Commencement speeches in Harvard Yard to more intimate house ceremonies, there is a strong shared sense of pride and tradition across the events,” she wrote. “The graduating class offers hope and fresh perspective, while reunion classes gather together to reminisce and share experiences from all walks of life.”

University Spokesperson Christopher A. Hennessy confirmed that the Harvard Alumni Association is planning virtual programming for the upcoming College alumni reunions that will take place in late May and early June.

University donor Paul A. Buttenwieser ’60 said he hopes Harvard honors this year’s graduates in a special way.

“My heart goes out to the seniors,” Buttenwieser said. “I just feel like they had the last two months of their whole life at Harvard truncated, not really having the chance to say goodbye or really celebrate with their classmates, have a really wonderful ending of senior year and then Commencement with their families.”

He added that he hopes the University will help students who may not have the financial means to come back to commencement otherwise.

“Harvard gives special funds to those parents to come up and travel to Cambridge and put them up over Commencement,” he said. “I’ve had some friends whose families really benefited from that.”

Doran, who is a former Crimson president, added that she encourages alumni to “rally around not only the Class of 2020 but all current undergraduates.”

“The Harvard alumni community should offer wisdom, friendship and compassion as these students embark on their unique journeys across the world during an unprecedented and challenging time,” Doran wrote. “We pride ourselves on our global citizenship and now is the time to fully embrace it.”

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

—Staff writer Matteo N. Wong can be reached at matteo.wong@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @matteo_wong.

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