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Commencement

Spirits Undampened

5.25.17

Namit Choksi and his M.P.H. classmates (from left) Ashley Cheng, Trusha Patel, and Anu Ghuman celebrate the day. Some School of Public Health degree recipients carried rubber light bulbs bearing the message “Bright ideas for a healthy world.”

Photograph by Jim Harrison


Namit Choksi and his M.P.H. classmates (from left) Ashley Cheng, Trusha Patel, and Anu Ghuman celebrate the day. Some School of Public Health degree recipients carried rubber light bulbs bearing the message “Bright ideas for a healthy world.”

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Commencement-ready: Marshal's aides Elliott ’12, and Greg ’74, M.P.P.-J.D. ’77 (in shower cap over top hat) Rosenbaum

Photograph by Lydia Carmichael/Harvard Magazine


Commencement-ready: Marshal's aides Elliott ’12, and Greg ’74, M.P.P.-J.D. ’77 (in shower cap over top hat) Rosenbaum

Photograph by Lydia Carmichael/Harvard Magazine

Newly minted physicians waved stethoscopes this year as their degrees were conferred.

Photograph by Jim Harrison


Newly minted physicians waved stethoscopes this year as their degrees were conferred.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

The new doctors of philosophy carried the flag of Dudley House.

Photograph by Jim Harrison


The new doctors of philosophy carried the flag of Dudley House.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Eliot House residents—including Ashley Collins (left) and Rachael Stein—were among the first seniors to enter Tercentenary Theatre during the morning’s procession.

Photograph by Jim Harrison


Eliot House residents—including Ashley Collins (left) and Rachael Stein—were among the first seniors to enter Tercentenary Theatre during the morning’s procession.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

May showers brought Commencement flowers.   

Photograph by Jim Harrison


May showers brought Commencement flowers.   

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Crimson football—here exemplified by (left to right) Raishaun McGhee, Kolbi Brown, and John Van Allen—proved one of many sources of undergraduate pride.

Photograph by Jim Harrison


Crimson football—here exemplified by (left to right) Raishaun McGhee, Kolbi Brown, and John Van Allen—proved one of many sources of undergraduate pride.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Members of the Cabot House contingent prepares to cheer the official procession of administrators, honorands, and faculty members. From front to back, they are Kruti Vora, Faculty Dean Stephanie Khurana, Emily Wang, Baily Gary, House Dean Tiffanie Ting, and Ritchey Howe.

Photograph by Jim Harrison


Members of the Cabot House contingent prepares to cheer the official procession of administrators, honorands, and faculty members. From front to back, they are Kruti Vora, Faculty Dean Stephanie Khurana, Emily Wang, Baily Gary, House Dean Tiffanie Ting, and Ritchey Howe.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Cassandra Fradera, A.L.M. ’17, who helped organize Wednesday’s LatinX Graduation, and other Extension School degree recipients were full of cheer despite the weather.

Photograph by Jim Harrison


Cassandra Fradera, A.L.M. ’17, who helped organize Wednesday’s LatinX Graduation, and other Extension School degree recipients were full of cheer despite the weather.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Concluding the dinner for honorary-degree recipients in Annenberg Hall Wednesday night, President Drew Faust directed the assembled tuxedoes and evening gowns to be “stalwart” on the morrow, observing the old observation (and hoping the old hope), “It never rains on Harvard Commencement—even when it rains.” Thursday morning, as dawn arrived not in a blaze of sunlight but in a gradual lessening of the gray overhead, the dour National Weather Service forecast for Cambridge called for “Rain, mainly before 5 pm, then areas of drizzle with a chance of rain after 5 pm. Areas of fog after 10 am. High near 55. East wind 5 to 14 mph, with gusts as high as 24 mph. Chance of precipitation is 100%.” Less late New England spring than slicker and sweater weather. Clearly, somebody was peddling fake news.

At 6:00 a.m., resplendent in her hat, a Marshal’s Aide strode up Broadway, loyal to alma mater but hedging on the president’s forecast: she bore an umbrella. Along Mass. Ave., the early throngs awaiting the opening of the gates were nearly universally equipped with coffee cups and umbrellas, causing a twenty-first-century existential crisis: where and how to hold the iPhone? (Those with spouses or friends wisely delegated one of the three.) Harvard Innovation Labs made a bad bet: its full-page ad in The Harvard Crimson showed how to fold a piece of newsprint into a fan (“Become a fan of innovation”), when, clearly, an umbrella or shell was warranted.

And so the day’s drama was outlined: wet or not? Shortly after 7:00 a.m., as sprinkles descended, umbrellas were unfurled and ponchos were donned. In the early going, it was Meteorologists 1-Harvard 0—but for a 381-year-old institution, it is a long game.

Commencement in Context

A late, cool, wet spring. A deluge on Sunday, May 14, when the snowfall atop New Hampshire's Mount Washington—more than 30 inches—exceeded the record for the date. Four days later, it was 95 degrees in Boston, another, opposite record for that date. Normal seasonal volatility for New England, or a sign of the unsettled times: the polarization of the larger society?

Harvard, having been thro’ change and storm for nearly four centuries, sloughed the weather off and went about the business of putting on its annual really big show. By that hot Thursday, May 18, crimson banners festooned Tercentenary Theatre’s well-placed trees; Harvard Law School, still in search of a new crest (an agenda item for its new dean-to-be-appointed), for the second year had a plain red banner simply bearing its lettered name. Crews were hard at it, forklifting concrete weights into place and assembling the new-model, bigger, brighter, higher-resolution video screens that make the people seated way back in the morning crowd feel a part of things. Unmistakably, the gearing up for the 366th Commencement had begun.

By Friday afternoon, a couple of undergraduates already in caps and gowns (no doubt the kind of students who routinely get a sensible amount of sleep, and draft papers or tackle problem sets before the night before they are due) posed for pictures in the Yard. Tents were tautly erected. The first phalanxes of chairs were rolled into Tercentenary Theatre for unbundling and weekend placement in their serried ranks. There followed two of the most perfectly splendid spring weekend days since 1636—lucky the graduates of Brandeis, BU, and Tufts, who received their degrees on May 21.

Damp, cool conditions descended on New England anew Monday morning, threatening to moisten the proceedings then under way in New Haven, soaking the Boston College graduates across the Charles River, scenting the Cambridge air with the tons of mulch freshly flung around the campus shrubs, and darkening thoughts and furrowing brows in Wadsworth House, where University Marshal Jackie O’Neill (arriving dignitaries in mind) and new Commencement director Stephan Magro remained in overdrive, attending to the details within their purview and contemplating the meteorological ones that resist Harvard’s control.

Even as they bent their energies toward making immutable memories for the graduates, of course, the University and its environs continued to evolve. On Wednesday morning, contractors were busy erecting heavy steel beams in front of the transforming Holyoke/Smith Center, and public notices in storefronts along Brattle Street advertised a Commencement-evening Cambridge hearing about a proposal to reconfigure the wedge-shaped landmark building that has long defined the Square (think a luxe retail mall). After college, kids, ça change. 

A Theme-Filled Week

Early Tuesday, the murk lifted for a few hours, in time for the official business to begin. Immediately, as if illuminated by the morning sunlight, some of the week’s themes emerged.

First, at the Phi Beta Kappa literary exercises in Sanders Theatre, orator Sherry Turkle ’69, Ph.D. ’76, delivered a sharp critique of social media, titled “How Technology Makes You Forget What You Know about Life.” The apparent efficiencies inherent in technologically mediated discourse, she explained, come at a huge cost in terms of human efficacy and empathy. Discourse subjected to self-curation, with the “boring bits” edited out, she said, “turns a relational encounter into a transactional encounter”—undermining the very capacity for “presence.” Citing a researcher who sought to develop “empathy apps,” she continued, “We sense that technology has gotten us into trouble and we would like technology to get us out of trouble.” But instead, both personally and in the wider political sphere, Turkle insisted, “For the failing connections of our digital world, conversation is the talking cure. We need to reclaim what we know about life.”

In so doing, she laid down a marker for Harvard as an academy, even during Commencement celebrations, because she implicitly began a conversation about social media and other online conduits, two days before the appearance of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as the featured speaker in the afternoon exercises, and three days before a Radcliffe Day symposium on “(Un)Truths and Their Consequences”—fake news, if you will (also implicating social media and other online forums).

At the same time, a second theme arose on the Law School’s Holmes Field, as Harvard’s first black commencement took place. In a year when President Drew Faust chartered a Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging, the new graduation event organized by and for black students, and the separate Latinx graduation (the third iteration, on Tuesday evening), suggested some of the cleavages underlying what has, undeniably, become a more diverse community. (Conant University Professor Danielle Allen, a co-chair of that presidential task force, was scheduled to escort one of the honorands Thursday morning, and to lead the Radcliffe symposium Friday morning. Corrected May 31, 8:00 a.m: Allen was a member of the panel; the moderator was Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism.)

In her Baccalaureate remarks to the seniors Tuesday afternoon (in the newly air-conditioned Memorial Church—a first in the 381-year history of the event, Faust noted), the president referred humorously to another source of sharp divisions: those surrounding the new College policy that sanctions membership in “unrecognized single-gender social organizations” (USGSOs, such as final clubs and fraternities), beginning with freshmen who arrive this August. Clubs that exclude female or male students pose issues for a community that strives for inclusion—but sanctioning students for their choice to belong to legal social organizations raises other issues pertinent to a community that prizes academic freedom.

A third theme emerged on Wednesday. Although the day itself dawned leaden, with the sun just an occasional smear of lighter gray, the campus conversation itself was lively, extending beyond community norms and the personal issues implicated in social media to what might be called parallel (or prior) political universes. (The day before, Turkle had alluded to the polarized political discourse, and the Phi Beta Kappa poet, Mark Doty, composed a new work, “Air Rights,” for the occasion, inspired, he said, by that most New York of phenomena, the real-estate developer, one of whom now presides over the country.)

During the morning commissioning ceremony for students enrolled in the ROTC program, as sprinkles briefly appeared, President Faust spoke directly about the present “moment of extraordinary challenge for our society and the wider world,” addressing not only “diplomatic and military tensions in Asia, raging conflicts in the Middle East, the threat of terrorism around the globe” but also “Within our own body politic…polarization and social division.” The cadets, she said, “are committing yourselves to be leaders at a moment when we have never needed leaders more.”

The College seniors chose as their Class Day speaker former U.S. vice president Joe Biden, who urged them to engage politically. The Kennedy School students heard from the former secretary of state, John Kerry, who was sharply critical of the situation prevailing in Washington, and its effects on the perceptions of American leadership around the world. The law-schoolers welcomed Sally Yates, who was dismissed from her role as acting U.S. attorney general when she refused to defend President Donald Trump’s initial executive order banning travelers from seven (later revised to six) Muslim-majority countries. (On Thursday morning, a citizen of one of those countries, whose travel to the United States was complicated by Trump’s executive order, received an honorary degree.) Near the end of her talk, Yates relayed “an old Irish story” she heard from a friend. A man arrives at the gates of Heaven, and wants to get in. “Saint Peter says, ‘Of course. Show me your scars.’ The man said, ‘Scars? I have no scars.’ Saint Peter replies, ‘Pity. Was there nothing worth fighting for?’” Later this afternoon, the public-health graduates are expected to hear from Gina McCarthy, past administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is under threat of being downsized, with a vengeance, at the new president’s behest. (For those with longer memories of different political eras, the current Pusey Library exhibition, “JFK’s Harvard, Harvard’s JFK,” in the centennial year of the late thirty-fifth president’s birth, recalls a Crimson-tinged, Democratic administration before that of Barack Obama, J.D. ’91.) At the Graduate School of Education, Reshma Saujani, M.P.P. ’99, founder of Girls Who Code, and other speakers talked about equity, justice, and resilience.

Clearly, even before the focal formalities of May 25, the 2017-model Commencement week engaged seriously with the world the graduates were about to entering.

Thursday Morning: The Student Speakers’ Big Moment

Once Jackie O’Neill had settled the damp crowd, and the sheriff of Middlesex County, in a customarily showboating performance, shattered hundreds or thousands of eardrums calling for order at 9:53 a.m. (a bit behind schedule, perhaps given the sodden shuffle into the Yard), and Francis Scott Key was rendered his due, the chaplain of the day, Alanna Copenhaver Sullivan, associate minister in the Memorial Church, offered the opening prayer. (Consult the Morning Exercises program here.)

As newcomers to a Crimson graduation may not realize, the prize speaking parts in the morning ceremony belong to students. (The adults—Faust and the youngish adult Zuckerberg—must wait until after lunch for their turn.) The 2017 cohort included Mather House resident Jessica (Jessi) Rachael Glueck ’17 (the Latin salutatory and its English translation); Auguste (Gussie) Jennings Roc ’17, of Pforzheimer House (the Senior English Address); and Walter Edward Smelt III, M.T.S. ’17, coincidentally representing Harvard Divinity School at the end of its bicentennial-year celebration (the Graduate English Address). They are profiled here, and in the Gazette.

“Epos Imperfectum” (“The Unfinished Epic”): Latin Salutatory


Jessica Glueck
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Befitting a Latin Orator (read her full text, in Latin and English, here), Jessica Glueck invited her audience “to spend a little time contemplating ancient things,” and thus inspired, by recalling “sweet memories at this University” to “begin a Harvardian epic on the strings of our lyre”:

We sing of arms and heroes, who first fought through long nights against Computer Science 50 or Expository Writing or Economics 10; who afterwards, tossed about by the greatest labors, defeated formidable theses. We will never forget those brave souls who ventured to the shores of the Lamonsters, and some of whom were changed into Lamonsters themselves; nor those paragons of utmost courage who dared to descend to the underworld—that is, to the basement of the Science Center. There, they sought explanations for the “oracles,” or the mysterious words of their professors: their success was variable, but their efforts were extraordinary. But we don’t only sing the praises of those who are powerful in mind. There are also those who are strong in body, our football players. The Yalies unjustly conquered them this year, as the Greeks conquered unfairly at Troy long ago; but most often, our own athletes triumphed.

(For those who need help interpreting contemporary undergraduate English references, never mind the Latin, CS 50 is the popular introductory course in computer science—alas, under a cloud of academic misconduct this past year, according to accounts in The Harvard Crimson. “Lamonsters” pertains to those studious peers who resorted to the principal undergraduate library. The “oracles” in question may be a sly synecdoche, standing in for the computer workstations arrayed in study rooms in the lower level of the Science Center. Decency on this occasion precludes further comment on the 133rd edition of The Game, so painfully described by correspondent Dick Friedman last November.)

Returning to her classmates’ College experience, Glueck continued:

Meanwhile, as the laurel wreaths were being earned by these tough Harvardians, perhaps we burned with some passion, as Aeneas or Odysseus did. Maybe we found a new Circe at a party; or maybe we fell in love with a book, an idea, or a language. This delight was always our comrade, warming the heart in the frigid Cambridge winters; when we struggled under the weight of our obligations, we could still experience hope and joy in its embrace. Aeneas had to abandon his supremely lovely queen so that he might seek Italy. We, by contrast, may carry our dear one with us over land and sea; and we shall always remember this place, where we first came to love. 

Acknowledging that a commencement is a beginning, not an ending, she observed that “this work seems unfinished.…The poet Virgil himself felt that he had not finished the great books of the Aeneid; perhaps the fates have decreed that all poets must worry,” a great understatement of of the poet’s predicament. In the instant case, “Our Harvard epic has contained much, but it was merely a prologue. There is still time for us to write a beautiful and wholly new work, worthy of a place among the poems of the ancients.”

“When We Fall in One Piece”: Senior English Address


Gussie Roc
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Gussie Roc had actual epochal events on her mind  (read her full text here). “When I was six years old,” she began,

I learned suddenly that the world is a scary place. On a beautiful, crisp, blue sky morning on my first day of first grade, a cinematic fireball roared out of the World Trade Center and fixed me to the living room window.

Our apartment building shook like an earthquake. Then, the lights went out. The power outage ended Sesame Street early and with no elevator, my mom and I ran down 22 flights of stairs to my building’s lobby. As the first tower fell and the perfect blue sky turned black, I floated away from the only home I had known in a lifeboat going to New Jersey, leaving behind my neighborhood buried in a dusty, white avalanche of rubble and debris. When we got to New Jersey, a fireman’s deep voice directed me to jump. I made it off the boat and onto the dock without falling into the Hudson River, but I lost my shoes and watched helplessly as they drifted towards the smoky horizon.

While I stood there, another firefighter took me by the hand, and silently guided me through a hole in a chain-link fence to an office building where my neighbors sought refuge. We looked like ghosts, covered head to toe in debris. The firefighter handed me a hose so I could clean my face and hands. I know now that the firefighter had friends that had just died minutes before, but in that moment, he took my hand and helped me to get cleaned up. He showed me what it was like to be strong.

I’ve often wondered if, in some small way, I see the world as I do today because of that firefighter, because I witnessed that day that love and courage trump hate and destruction. While my neighborhood collapsed before my eyes, my strongest memory is still of that one firefighter. The story of 9/11 is that two planes hit the Twin Towers, but the story for me is that a firefighter held my hand.

After 9/11, Roc and her family had to live with friends and in hotels for three months while their blast-shattered apartment and possessions were cleaned and salvaged, where possible.

And then, remarkably, in April 2013, when she and other admitted applicants to the College class of 2017 prepared to visit campus to make their final decisions about where to enroll, “Cambridge was on lockdown as law enforcement searched for the remaining suspect” from the Boston Marathon bombing.

Once again, she took a positive lesson from a close brush with tragedy and terror:

Students holed up in their dorm rooms for hours as police cars patrolled the city. Visitas—the three-day event that would serve to welcome newly admitted students—was to be hosted that weekend. Some of us had already arrived—and spent the day at the airport. In limbo. Waiting. In the end, Visitas was cancelled.

However, in the span of just a few hours, Harvard’s upperclassmen rallied to create a Virtual Visitas for us and welcomed us through our computer screens. Despite disruption and uncertainty, Harvard students rallied to welcome the Class of 2017.

The story of the 2013 Boston Marathon is that two brothers committed an act of terror that killed and injured, but what if the ultimate story was that courageous bystanders ran toward the explosion to save lives? The story of the days that followed is that Cambridge was on lockdown on the weekend that was supposed to have been our Visitas, but what if the ultimate story was that the upperclassmen cared enough to figure out another way to welcome us to Harvard and to make us feel at home?

“I have learned that the world can be a scary place,” Roc declared, continuing:

Many of us have gone to bed in fear—fear of discrimination, fear of deportation, fear of walls and bans and rollbacks. We have been afraid. But, among us are the courageous. I know because I’ve seen it. I’ve eaten next to it in the dining hall, I’ve studied across from it in the library, I’ve walked by it in Harvard Yard. I know the mark of courage, and I’ve seen it here with you.

So, as we prepare to graduate and walk through those gates one final time as students, let us choose our weapons wisely. Let Courage be our defense against cowardice, Hope our defense against despair, Compassion our defense against destruction.

Let’s choose Love as our ultimate defense against fear, because in the face of fear, lies the golden opportunity to shift the narrative by being someone who is willing to walk a six-year-old to a safe place, through a hole in a chain-link fence.…

“How to Be Bewildered at Harvard”: Graduate English Address


Walter Smelt
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Walter Smelt addressed a different kind of bewilderment—intellectual and moral, in the context of a higher education—in his Graduate English Address (read his full text here). He began with self-deprecating humor:

To get into Harvard’s Widener library, you first climb a huge, imposing set of steps. After you do that and you finally enter our most monumental temple of learning, you see another imposing set of steps, and, if you’re me, you pause—because you’re winded. The whole ordeal feels like an architect’s heavy-handed attempt to teach some life lesson like “Knowledge is hard.”

His passion for books and ideas and literature, he continued, brought him to Widener and to divinity school—“a magical, kooky place where the people are always friendly and often know a language you’ve never heard of and sometimes bump into you because they’re doing walking meditation and no matter what you just said, it reminds someone of a line from the mystical poet Rumi.”

(He later identified Rumi as “an immigrant from what is now Afghanistan to what is now Turkey, an immigrant from the thirteenth century to our own, a Muslim mystic [who] has something immensely valuable to tell us, but we have to listen really hard for it, with humility, and for the rest of our lives.”)

“I think you’ll agree,” Smelt continued,

that Harvard graduates have a habit of going on to matter to the world. For good and for ill, often at the same time. And that’s where the divinity school comes in. Because, though it sits on the edge of campus, I believe it is the University’s moral center. In the chemistry lab and the math department, the goal is to solve problems. In the divinity school, problems are wrestled with, but they are never vanquished. That’s because some problems just come with being human, and they need to be confronted again by each generation. No new technology, no printing press or app, is going to settle the problem of greed, or death, or hate. And at the divinity school, we think about these problems, and about how people have dealt with them through the ages, and how to do what right we can in the face of all that’s wrong.

As it happens, that reminds me of a line from Rumi. “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” Harvard graduates will change the world, one way or another, because we’re clever. But we must be more than that. We must be willing to become bewildered: neither approaching a problem arrogantly, sure that we already know the answer, nor throwing up our hands and walking away. Becoming bewildered means admitting some problems don’t have quick fixes. It means learning from mistakes, learning from the other, learning what it is we can’t learn.

He counseled the soon-to-be graduates to

Be proud of what you’ve accomplished here, but know it’s only the beginning. Earlier, I mentioned the lesson of the Widener steps. Well, after a few years here, I’m sure you’ll agree that knowledge is hard. But wisdom is even harder. We’ll need both out there, whatever our field of study, because this world is complex and contradictory, and if we’re not bewildered sometimes, we’re doing it wrong. But we’ll go forth anyway, to change the world and also to be changed by it, to write our own books…Regardless of their form, your books will be good books if you are willing to be bewildered, if you take on this messy, tragic, lovely world and confront its problems in good faith.

The anthem following was, ironically, by the spritely, up-tempo spiritual, “Unclouded Day,” based on the lyrics by J.K. Alwood (“O the land of cloudless days/O the land of an unclouded sky,/O they tell me of a home where no storm-clouds rise:/O they tell me of an unclouded day,” etc.), arranged by Shawn Kirchner.

The Degrees

Then, to the official business of the day: turning those students into alumni, as directed by Provost Alan Garber, who bore an extra responsibility this year since his son Ben, of Dunster House, a physics concentrator, was among the candidates for a bachelor’s degree.

As is often the case, the cast of officials involved in the conferring of degrees has new players, and a departing one. Epidemiologist Michelle A. Williams became public-health dean last July, and stem-cell scientist George Q. Daley assumed the helm at the medical school last January, so both debuted in their graduation roles today. (Both have been on the degree-receiving end of Harvard Commencement more than once in the past.) Doffing her cap for the last time was Harvard Law School’s Martha Minow, who concludes her service as dean on June 30; when she rose to present her candidates, Garber noted “deep appreciation for her eight years of leadership” of the school.

The degree-conferring sped along—perhaps it is hard to clap while holding an umbrella: a good thing given the late start to the exercises. But initially it seemed that would not be the case. Graduate School of Arts and Sciences dean Xiao-Li Meng, who hammed it up last year and appears determined to lighten up the reputation of statisticians, did so again this year. The Ph.D. candidates, having labored longest, were, as is customary, awarded their degrees first, with the College pups required to wait their turn at the end. Meng paused to elicit cheers and applause, and then, thanking the student-scholars for their efforts said, “To return the favor, I want to double-check with each of you whether you really want this degree, because many of you realize this is your last chance to be a Harvard dropout”—a sly reference to the afternoon guest speaker/honorand.

The distinguished doctors were followed, in quick order, by master of arts candidates, master’s students in science and engineering (sporting their youngish school’s new regalia), and the large Extension School cohort. Then the professions unspooled: the dentists (in their school’s sesquicentennial year) and physicians; diverse divinity candidates (at the end of their school’s bicentennial year); the lawyers (at the beginning of its bicentennial); business people; architects, landscape architects, and urban planners (wearing LEGOs on their caps); public-health specialists; educators; and soon-to-be public servants and administrators. After the Business School cohort got their degrees, dean Nitin Nohria did interrupt the formalities to issue a shout-out, “as a proud parent,” to daughter Reva, another member of the class of 2017, of Leverett House, who concentrated in the history of art and architecture. (In view of the provost’s parental restraint, conversation around the families’ dinner tables later ought to be fascinating.)

Before the undergraduates came into possession of their bachelor’s degrees courtesy of Harvard College dean Rakesh Khurana and President Faust, the Commencement Choir and University Band performed the world premiere of “To the River Charles,” from the first stanzas of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem (the appropriate middle one: “Four long years of mingled feeling,/Half in rest, and half in strife,/I have seen thy waters stealing/Onward, like the stream of life.”), set to music by Michael Schachter, who had been sitting in the same seats not that long ago: he is a member of the College class of 2009 (summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, no less), now completing a doctorate in music theory and composition at the University of Michigan. (He is composing the music and co-writing the libretto for the American Repertory Theater’s 2018 production of a musical based on Langston Hughes’s “The Black Clown.”)

The Honorands

The 10 honorary-degree recipients (read detailed biographies here) include a humanitarian physician in war-torn Somalia, an acclaimed actor and an equally acclaimed actress, a neurogeneticist and a theoretical computer scientist, a physicist-academic leader and an aerospace industry CEO, a wildly popular composer for film, a poet who is a pioneering feminist literary scholar, and a software CEO whose services have nearly two billion users.

The degrees were conferred in the following order on:

Dr. Hawa Abdi Diblawe, Doctor of Laws. The provost said of the Somalia humanitarian, “She has been called equal parts Mother Teresa and Rambo.”

Walter E. Massey, Doctor of Laws. His citation called him “a model man of Morehouse,” of which he was a graduate and president.

Michael O. Rabin, Doctor of Science. “He has explored the limits of what can and cannot be computed,” the provost said. He is the “high-capacity hard drive of Harvard computer science,” his citation read.

Dame Judi Dench, Doctor of Arts. The provost noted acclaim for “the subtlety and simplicity of her acting.” She is “a venerated queen of screen and theater,” according to her citation.

Norman R. Augustine, Doctor of Laws. The provost noted an assessment of the honorand as “the most influential nonscientist in U.S. science.” His citation called him “devoted to science in the nation’s service.”

John Williams, Doctor of Music. By way of introduction, the provost initially deferred speaking, turning the stage over to a Harvard Din & Tonics a cappella medley of the composer’s signature themes, including those from Star Wars, E.T., Harry Potter, and Jaws. He is, according to his citation, “the Superman of music for the movies.”

Sandra M. Gilbert, Doctor of Laws. At the dinner for honorands Wednesday night in Annenberg Hall, President Faust noted that Gilbert—a poet and feminist literary critic—had recalled having only a single woman teacher in college, and another in graduate school, and reading only a single woman author as a student: Jane Austen. Gilbert, she said, had changed the terrain.

Dr. Huda Yahya Zoghbi, Doctor of Science. A neurologist and geneticist, she is “an illustrious” scientist, educator, and mentor, the provost said.

James Earl Jones, Doctor of Arts. “He has sought to lure Luke Skywalker to the dark side,” the provost said, citing just one of many of the honorand’s prized roles on screen and stage.

Mark Zuckerberg, Doctor of Laws. At the honorands’ dinner, Faust said that Facebook, the invention that began in a suite in Kirkland House, “has changed how the world works.” It was a delight to welcome Zuckerberg to the lectern, she said, “on this final night before he can at last change his Facebook status to reflect a Harvard degree.” Zuckerberg—in a tuxedo, not a T-shirt—thanked Faust, saluted the class of 2017 honorands, and said it was “pretty humbling” to be honored beside “some of my childhood heroes.” Very much the boyish billionaire, he continued: “The theme of my bar mitzvah was Star Wars,” making the presence among the honorands of the voice of Darth Vader and the composer of the theme music for the movie especially special. The provost joked about the Star Wars-themed bar mitzvah, as Zuckerberg and Jones enjoyed the moment together. When the provost referred to Kirkland, the new graduates whooped it up. “It is with the greatest of pride, having confirmed that his bills are fully paid,” the provost joked, that Harvard conferred his Harvard degree—to Zuckerberg's obvious delight. 

Finale

It took nearly 40 minutes to confer the honorary degrees. From there, Jackie O’Neill marched the proceedings briskly to a close. The Harvard Hymn was sung. One more surprise awaited. Jonathan Walton, the Pusey Minister in Memorial Church, offered the benediction, reminding the graduates that “Life is short and time is filled with swift transition,” so they should not be slow in gladdening the hearts of others—and then wished especially for the class of 2017, ceding to James Earl Jones of the famous voice, “May the force be with you.”

The sheriff adjourned the meeting at 11:47 a.m., nearly exactly on schedule, and those whose hearing still functioned could enjoy the traditional ringing of the bells.

As they filed out, all of the former undergraduates, and nearly all of the other students in Tercentenary Theatre for the Morning Exercises, had survived their first Commencement, wet but undaunted by the weather forecasters. Also logging a first was Stephan Magro, the director of the day’s events—a newcomer to the role who succeeded Grace Scheibner, whose 24 years of service concluded last year.

While fully respecting the traditions that make Harvard’s graduation a capital “C” Commencement that uplifts and entertains well more than 30,000 students, parents, friends, special guests, and reuning alumni, Magro has brought his own modernizing vibe to the proceedings. For his detail-filled, meticulous labors, he was rewarded, probably, less with jubilation than with exhaustion—but now he has one under his belt. The first planning meetings for the 367th edition are at least a week or two off, so he can collapse in satisfaction at a job well done.

In the meantime, seeking to trick Mother Nature, the afternoon’s talks were scheduled to proceed with a 15-minute rain delay.

 

 

 

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