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A Brief History of the Presidential Installation

By Catherine E. Shoichet, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

The next day, delegates from 216 institutions of higher education shook Lowell’s hand on the Sanders Theatre stage. The ceremony was followed by a whirlwind eating excursion for the delegates—lunch in University Hall, tea at Harvard Medical School and dinner at the Harvard Union.

For Lowell’s successor, James B. Conant ’14, pomp and circumstance was not a priority, with war on the horizon and an upcoming Tercentenary Celebration. Instead, Conant selected the Faculty Room of University Hall for his installation. Only 150 people attended. In retrospect, Conant’s secretary, Jerome Greene, maintained that the famed 1935 Tercentenary Celebration, with its audience of 15,000, was Conant’s true inauguration.

Conant’s installation was the first of what would be a series of subdued ceremonies in the University Hall Faculty Room. Nathan M. Pusey ’28 and his successor, Derek C. Bok, also chose to celebrate quietly. Bok’s installation, with 110 guests, was the smallest in Harvard’s modern history.

With the arrival of Neil L. Rudenstine in 1991, the installation returned to the Lowell model of fanfare and frippery. Rudenstine planned a program to introduce himself to Harvard and to engage the community intellectually and artistically. An outdoor ceremony followed two days of faculty symposia, concerts and literary readings.

Presidential Plans

Historically, the presidential installation ceremony has been much more than a mere display of tradition. It is a presentation of the new goals of a new president.

After receiving the symbolic keys to the University, each new Harvard president delivered a speech outlining the keys to its success. Often, these presidential pledges were the roots of Harvard’s great education reforms.

When he stepped up to the podium in 1869, Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, promised Harvard academic excellence across the board.

“We shall have them all,” he said, “and at their best.”

Even today, Eliot’s speech is regarded as the quintessential Harvard inauguration address, Gomes said.

“It doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.

Forty years later, Lowell turned the focus towards undergraduates, outlining his plan for a new system of concentration and distribution requirements. He suggested tutorial instruction and first-year residence halls.

“The best type of liberal education in our complex modern world,” he declared, “aims at producing men who know a little of everything and something well.”

For Harvard presidents moving into the second half of the 20th century, the turmoil of the times precluded announcements of sweeping reforms. Though later he would prove to be a great mover and shaker in the world of education, Conant claimed he had no great plans for changes at the University. Bok, speaking in the midst of the Vietnam War, told the small audience assembled in University Hall that he hoped to “renew a vision of our future that will rally faculty, students, staff and alumni to the effort that our special resources permit, and the circumstances of our times require.” For Rudenstine, the installation speech was the perfect opportunity to present his five-pronged plan for University reform, including increased community outreach, resource evaluation, improvement of undergraduate education, the creation of a University-wide agenda and the development of “special support” for the natural sciences, the applied sciences and technology.

“If we want to make progress—especially in our most heavily enrolled departments—we will have to add faculty on a selective basis,” he said. “That will take time as well as money.”

Though the subject of Summers’ address has not been made public, it will likely include the themes he has emphasized since his appointment last March—promoting undergraduate education, extending the University’s technological reach, improving the science programs, and planning for Harvard in the 21st century.

—Staff writer Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at

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