Summers Jokes With Graduates

At Baccalaureate Service, president presents quips and advice

Lela A. Brodsky

Waving a baton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church Rev. Peter J. Gomes leads members of the Class of 2004 into Memorial Church before the Baccalaureate Service yesterday.

At yesterday’s Baccalaureate Service, University President Lawrence H. Summers imparted good will and advice to the Class of 2004, eliciting raucous laughter from the crowd of future graduates.

The spiritual service, held yesterday at 2 p.m. at Memorial Church, is one of the College’s oldest annual public ceremonies, predated only by Commencement.

Hundreds of members of the senior class, sporting caps and gowns, formed a line at Holworthy Hall, proceeded across the Yard, tipped off their mortarboards to John Harvard, and—led by their class marshals—crammed into Memorial Church for the hour-and-a-half ceremony.

“We welcome you to your last rites,” said Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes, after inviting the seniors through the doors of the church’s western porch.

After a speech by Gomes, several prayers—including readings from the Hebrew Bible, Hindu Scripture, the Holy Quran and the New Testament—and two anthems sung by the Commencement Choir, Summers slowly rose to deliver the keynote address.

Summers opened with a story from the annals of Harvard history and in so doing, may have created another College tradition—by repeating his jokes from previous years’ Baccalaureate speeches.

Summers said that the Baccalaureate Service derived from an over 600-year-old custom at Cambridge University, in which graduates were forced to sit through the ceremony with, “bowed head over which...hood was drawn, a picture of abject humility and utter embarrassment.”

“I have observed students in an infinite variety of states, but never in a state of abject humility,” Summers quipped, recycling a punchline from his 2002 Baccalaureate address.

Though Summers used some old jokes, he did offer some new words of wisdom. He told students yesterday to embrace their intellectual talents, strive for multiple perspectives and “think things through.”

Summers also referenced the architects of the future campus at Allston in order to illustrate the importance of tapping other experiences for a full perspective.

“I have come to appreciate how closely they observe [students]...before designing a building to house those activities,” Summers said.

Summers asked students to “develop a lifetime habit of thinking things through,” adding that a liberal education could “hardly teach you everything you need to know.”

“Don’t just rely on traditions, but systematically analyze things,” Summers said.

In another joke that received laughter from the senior class, Summers rhymed, “You’ll leave the Yard, but you’ll never leave Har-Vard.”

“My friends in the humanities feel that this is as close to poetry as I will get,” Summers said.

Kingsley University Professor of English Helen Vendler said after the speech that she was not aware that Summers had made his literary debut.