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Commencement and Reunion Guide

Meet the New Marshal

May-June 2004

As a long-time Harvard administrator, Jacqueline A. O'Neill has attended so many Commencements that she can almost recite the script by heart. But this year's ceremony will bring a big change for her: she will preside at Harvard's 353rd Commencement Exercises on June 10, having been named University marshal in January—the first woman to serve in that position. (Her predecessor, Richard M. Hunt, retired in 2002 after holding the post since 1982; in the interim, University provost Steven E. Hyman emceed the Commencement stage. This year, O'Neill and Hyman will share the honors.)

As marshal, O'Neill will serve as master of ceremonies for the morning exercises, speaking some lines that haven't changed in centuries. For instance, she'll open the event by formally imploring the sheriff of Middlesex County, "Pray give us order." (According to The Form of Conferring Degrees, the official Commencement instruction book, the sheriff then advances to the platform "and strikes it thrice with his staff" to begin the ceremony.)

The new marshal says she won't tinker much with tradition. "There is something that's so reassuring" about a ritual that changes so little from year to year, she explains. "It gives you a sense of comfort and of connectivity."

Between those annual ceremonies, O'Neill will have her hands full. As marshal, a job dating to the nineteenth century, she is Harvard's chief protocol officer. Among other responsibilities, she and her staff coordinate programs and tours for hundreds of distinguished visitors each year, including the occasional foreign head of state. They also find suitable substitutes from the extended Harvard community to represent the University at other institutions' functions when President Lawrence H. Summers cannot attend. "It's one of the jobs at Harvard that has one foot in the University and the other out in the world," says O'Neill, who was previously the president's staff director. As a senior University communications and community-relations official—she will continue to oversee external relations for the Allston Initiative—she notes, "I'm comfortable in either world."

But she expects that her favorite events will always include the big one held each spring near her Wadsworth House office. "I never get tired of it," she says. "It's the only ceremony that knits together parents, students, alumni, faculty, and staff."

~A.S.