A Brief History of the Presidential Installation

When President Lawrence H. Summers is formally installed as the 27th president of Harvard University on the steps of Memorial Church today, he will become part of a tradition that dates back more than 300 years.

The presidential installation ceremony—replete with symbolic University insignia and political dignitaries—is a long-standing hallmark of an institution that prides itself on its rich history.

Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Minister in Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes points out that the ceremony is deeply rooted in Massachusetts history as well.

“Both Harvard and the president have a symbolic and a constant role in the public life of Massachusetts,” he says. “The installation is not just a private college event. It has a public resonance.”

The legacy began nearly half a century after Massachusetts Bay Colony officials selected Harvard’s first president, Henry Dunster.

Though the third president of Harvard, Leonard Hoar, Class of 1650, was the first to be formally installed, the ritual elements still practiced today began in 1707 with the installation of John Leverett, Class of 1680.

On a winter day in 1707, Mass. Governor Joseph Dudley delivered a Latin oration before a small crowd. Leverett accepted the charge and several insignia of his office—the Harvard charter of 1650, the orignal hand-drawn design for the College seal and symbolic keys to the University. The emblems have since moved to safe, climate-controlled storage vaults in the Harvard Archives, but they remain a part of the ceremony today, representing the “tangible wealth of the University,” Gomes says.

Though Leverett’s installation was simple, the feast was lavish—the Harvard Corporation and 50 guests devoured 146 pounds of beef, pork and mutton, 19 apple and mince pies and 16 gallons of wine.

Leverett’s successor, Edward Holyoke, Class of 1705, added yet another relic to the installation ritual—the famous Harvard President’s Chair. Though the exact origins of the chair remain unknown, it has achieved legendary status due to its shaky triangular framework that makes each presidential sitting—at installation ceremonies and at Commencement—a balancing act.

“It is not known for its stability or its comfort,” University Marshal Richard M. Hunt explained during Neil L. Rudenstine’s 1991 installation.

Presidential Pomp

Over the years, the installation ceremony evolved to fit the personality of each new president. For some, the inauguration was a gala affair. For others, it was a hallowed ceremony to be quietly shared among administrators and behind closed doors.

But in 1849, attempts to preserve privacy, civility and high etiquette were shattered by disguntled student riots during the installation of Jared Sparks, Class of 1815.

When A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, was formally installed as Harvard’s 22nd president, undergraduates were an integral part of the festivities. The College band and a 160-member chorus performed as 13,000 spectators looked on in the Old Yard. Several hours after the ceremony, torch-bearing students wearing red sashes marched en masse from the Yard to the stadium, which also radiated a bold, crimson hue—with red Japanese lanterns forming a glowing “H” along the goalposts. Students marched twice around the track and cheered for the new University leader, who responded with a speech.

It was a celebration of excess. After receiving the College charter, seal and keys from former Mass. Governor John D. Long, Class of 1857, Lowell conferred honorary degrees on scholars from national and international institutions. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed that night in Sanders Theatre, and the day ended with a firework display that lit up the October night sky.