Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor Talks Justice, Civic Engagement at Radcliffe Day


Church Says It Did Not Authorize ‘People’s Commencement’ Protest After Harvard Graduation Walkout


‘Welcome to the Battlefield’: Maria Ressa Talks Tech, Fascism in Harvard Commencement Address


In Photos: Harvard’s 373rd Commencement Exercises


Rabbi Zarchi Confronted Maria Ressa, Walked Off Stage Over Her Harvard Commencement Speech

The Backout That Backfired


By Joseph F Kahn

Harvard spent six years and over $1 million to organize and finance the 350th anniversary celebration this September. Committee members took precautions against everything from terrorist attacks to wandering alumni children. It was designed to be the biggest and best-orchestrated Harvard event in 50 years--since the 300th anniversary.

Officials seemed to plan for virtually every contingency. But they forgot one basic rule of etiquette. They looked a gift horse in the mouth.

In early October 1985, the seven-man governing Corporation broke with tradition and chose not to award honorary degrees, Harvard's highest honor, at the 350th as they had at the 300th and the 250th anniversary celebrations.

The Corporation's decision followed protest by a few prominent professors when they learned that President Reagan would likely be among the speakers (and honorands) at the 350th festivities.

The Corporation informed 350th organizers that plans for awarding honorary degrees were to be scrapped (even though Harvard News Office publications had anticipated the awards in official releases), eliminating the possibility that Reagan--whom some professors had seen as an enemy of higher education--would receive an honorary degree.

President Derek C. Bok declined to explain the reasons behind the decision. Francis H. Burr '35, a former senior fellow of the Corporation and an organizer of the 350th, said he felt Harvard awards too many honorary degrees anyway and that a degree ceremony would detract from the birthday celebration.

But one prominent administrative source said at the time that he believed the decision was "the only graceful way out" of the controversy. Harvard would dole out the honorary doctorates to no one and avoid an embarrassing protest to disrupt the party, he said.

But the polite backout backfired. The local and national media reported Harvard's decision not to award degrees as a direct blow to the President, a classic case study in Harvard Hates America--coverage which surely did not escape the attention of the White House's public relations department.

The University minimized the chances that students and faculty would stage a protest at the ceremony, but they lost a keynote speaker. Reagan broke with the tradition of Presidents attending major Harvard anniversary celebrations--a tradition which had extended back to 1886--and gave Harvard his regrets.

While 350th organizers insist they have no reason to believe that Reagan objected to the degree decision, the circumstances surrounding the President's rejection of Harvard's invitation suggest otherwise.

Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger '38 and White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan '40, both of whom were undergraduates during the 300th anniversary (at which the University bestowed scores of honorary degrees), had reportedly been gently inquiring as to whether their boss would receive one as a condition for accepting Harvard's invite to speak at the second convocation on Friday, September 5.

By early January 1986, when organizers said they had expected to have Reagan's reply to their invitation, the White House gave no word. Not until late March did Harvard receive word that Reagan would not attend.

A White House spokesman contacted after the notification said Reagan had scheduling conflicts, but said, in the same sentence, that it was too early to tell what those conflicts might be. "It's just too far in advance to say what Reagan will be doing on those dates," said Jack Weber, deputy press secretary.

Weber explained: "The President is a very busy man. He gets invitations to speak at universities all the time and some of those universities are celebrating their anniversaries."

But despite the unfavorable media coverage and criticisms of what some regarded as a University publicity foulup, Harvard did not anticipate Reagan's regrets, according to Thomas W. Stephenson '37, the secretary to the 350th committee. "Now I have to go back to the steering committee to ask for suggestions for new speakers," said Stephenson, the man responsible for administering much of the ceremony. "It's going to take awhile. It's late and it's my number one priority," he said at the time.

To this date, the 350th committee has yet to find what they consider to be a suitable replacement for Reagan, who was slotted to headline the second convocation, entitled "Harvard in a Changing World."

"It's disappointing," said Bok, who has lobbied vigorously against Reagan's higher education programs since 1980. "But we'll have a lively, fun time. Just you wait and see."

The 350th marks the second time Reagan has refused a Harvard invitation. He turned down an offer to speak at Commencement ceremonies in 1981.

Stephenson said he expected to find a replacement sometime this month, but added that he realized the difficulty in attracting a prominent statesman in such a short period of time. Names being bandied about by officials as possible replacements include Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, Chinese Premier Deng Xiao Ping, and Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid.

According to University Marshal Richard M. Hunt, the two other 350th convocations, which will be delivered on September 4 and September 6, have been completely organized. Prince Charles will star on September 4 in the convocation entitled "Harvard and its Origins," and President Bok will lead off Saturday's festivities with a talk entitled "Harvard and its Family." All three convocations, the mainstay of the 350th celebration, will be held in Tercentenary Theater.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.