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Jokes, Pomp, But No Rain Mark Commencement Exercises

By Alexander J. Blenkinsopp

University President Lawrence H. Summers joked with graduates at Thursday morning’s lighthearted Commencement exercises, teasing those who clapped too soon and thanking the Divinity School students “for the use of their special connections” to hold off the torrential downpours that marred last year’s ceremony.

Jokes, slip-ups and colorful expressions of excitement from the 6,349 degree recipients marked the ceremonies, which lasted well over two and a half hours.

The high sheriff of Middlesex County, who traditionally calls the exercises to order by banging a silver-tipped staff three times on the steps of Memorial Church, kicked off the event inauspiciously.

The second strike, performed with particular gusto, knocked the silver knob off the top of the staff and sent it flying.

Some in the audience reported overhearing the sheriff remark that the staff must have been made in Connecticut.

The sheriff picked up the ornament, replaced it, and landed the third blow to the platform amidst laughter from the crowd.

Students from the graduate schools bore symbols of their educational affiliation as they processed around the Yard to their seats in Tercentenary Theatre before the ceremony began at 10 a.m.

Divinity School students wore gold halos affixed to their mortarboards, Law School students brandished inflated plastic sharks and Business School students waved dollar bills. Graduates from the School of Education, in contrast, carried children’s books, while Medical School students swung surgical masks in the air and Kennedy School of Government degree recipients tossed around inflated plastic globes.

On a day that was wet because of earlier rainfall—much of the Yard was made muddy and the folding seats in Tercentenary Theatre held puddles of water—Summers said he was grateful to have narrowly avoided the downpours that plagued his first Commencement. After jokingly thanking divinity students’ providential connections he asked “for one more hour.”

But when the Medical School graduates erupted into cheers before he had finished his conferral of degrees upon them, Summers was less grateful.

“Don’t jump the gun,” he warned.

And during his ceremonial remarks affirming the readiness of the newly-minted graduates to put their education to use—repeated for degree recipients from each of the schools—Summers added an extra phrase for Harvard’s doctors-to-be: “You are ready—all too ready.”

Summers then conferred honorary degrees on 11 leaders from the world of business, art and academia. When Provost Steven E. Hyman read a brief biography of honorand Norman C. Francis and took a breath after mentioning that Francis served as chair of Educational Testing Services, hisses arose from the audience.

“I should not have paused,” Hyman said.

Charles B. Watson, Jr. ’03 delivered the Latin student oration, entitled “De Ignotis,” or “On the Forgotten.” He urged his fellow graduates to remember those who had made an impact on them regardless of their lack of fame, and to attempt to make a similarly lasting impact on others.

“The ancestor who in the past sweated as he tilled infertile fields, the elementary school teacher who toiled away in teaching her students and that friend who helped relieve our burden,” he said, according to the translation printed in the program, “all of these, although they may be forgotten, nevertheless are a vital part of us today and will be for as long as we live.”

In the Senior English Address entitled “Respecting the Future,” Eric B. Hart ’03 asked for dignity in public discourse and debate, while poking fun at the loquaciousness of Harvard students.

“If we cannot conserve oxygen,” Hart said, “we should at least preserve civility.”

Elizabeth L.D. Carpenter, a student from the Business School, delivered the Graduate English Address. Her speech, entitled “Auden and the Little Things,” was based on W.H. Auden’s poem “Sept. 1, 1939.”

According to Carpenter, Auden eventually found fault in one of the poem’s most famous lines—“We must love one another or die”—and abandoned it.

But Carpenter said the message still applies, “and not even its author can take that away.”

After the speeches and conferral of degrees, the high sheriff closed the ceremony by pounding his staff three times. This time, he held the knob securely in place.

This year’s commencement featured several new security measures, including a requirement that all the graduates wear lanyards around their necks containing their identification cards.

Despite the lanyard requirement—and fears of terrorist attacks reignited two weeks ago after an explosion at Yale Law School, which the FBI is still investigating—security for the occasion seemed slightly looser than last year’s.

While security guards and Harvard University Police Department officers carried metal-detector wands to screen visitors, their scans were few and far between, and lines of people moved through gates into the Yard at a relatively quick pace.

Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at blenkins@fas.harvard.edu.

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