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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
President Derek C. Bok fielded a question from an unexpected guest yesterday, during an address to the first official 25th reunion gathering of the Class of 1966.
"Derek," called President-designate Neil L. Rudenstine from the far edge of Sanders Theater's front row. "I have been listening, deeply impressed, to the way you are answering questions, and I just wonder whether there is any chance at all whether you would reconsider?"
Rudenstine took the podium, but only to praise Bok as an outstanding leader in higher education over the last several decades.
And with his words, the leader of Harvard's future capped off an hour-long journey into the past, as Bok and Radcliffe President Linda S. Wilson welcomed returning alums and reviewed 25 years of change at the University.
Wilson emphasized the changes that co-education has meant for Radcliffe--a college that she said now divides its time between a commitment to undergraduate education for women and support for research projects.
Having turned over day-to-day responsibilities of its undergrads to Harvard in the 1973 "non-merger merger," Wilson told the crowd of 600 that Radcliffe now sets its sights on increasing women faculty at the University, improving security for women on campus and understanding gender dynamics in the classroom.
In addition, scholars at the Bunting Institute and the Murray Research Center are on the frontier of research on women's issues, Wilson said.
"Radcliffe's compelling educational mission is to advance society by advancing women," she said.
Bok, who was greeted with a standing ovation, said that he has just begun to come to grips with his impending retirement.
"Last week my freshman advisees gave me a going away gift--a beach ball and a pair of flourescent swimming trunks," Bok said. "I promised that I would make good use of them."
Bok told the Class of 1966 alums that the University has undergone profound changes over the last 25 years, many of which had their origins during their own undergraduate years.
"During your sophomore year, John Kennedy attended his last Harvard football game," Bok said, adding that Kennedy's assasination marked a real turning point for the country and for higher education.
The early and mid-1960s, when men on campus were obsessed with thoughts of the draft and 'Cliffies were awakening to the first moments of the women's movement, soon gave way to a more tumultuous era at the University in the later part of the decade, Bok said.
"Soon after you left, all hell broke loose," Bok said, "and that's pretty much where I came in."
Bok said that the 1970s were marked by structural improvements, as the University renovated its athletic facilities and the houses. At the same time, "deeper, less reversible changes" were being felt on campus, Bok said, citing the dramatic increase in minorities and international students in the student body.
Technology, too, has been a revolutionary force in academia, Bok said. Computers and videotapes, he said, have changed both the way students communicate their thoughts and the manner of taking in new knowledge from professors.
"It's been my goal for some time to stay until it was possible for any self-respecting graduate to leave Harvard without ever having gotten out of bed," Bok said, smiling.
"It is technically conceivable, if not psychologically horrifying," he said.
Bok said that his recipe for the future success of Harvard is quite similar to the one he has used over the last decade: take a diverse faculty and student body, "mix them up in the houses and add an extraordinary array of extracurricular and cultural opportunities."
While a few alums answered Bok's call for questions with queries about the state of the University, at least one member of the Class of 1966 got to the heart of the matter--the real purpose of the whole reunion rigamarole.
"My daughter may be applying for admission next year," the man said. "What kind of buildings do you need?"
Bok answered, "If you'll see me after class..."
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