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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Ninety years after the University began persecuting homosexual undergraduates in the infamous “Secret Court,” a group of Harvard students and affiliates have launched a movement to award those seven expelled students—two of whom committed suicide—posthumous honorary degrees at this year’s commencement.
Initiated by former University President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, and his administration, the “Secret Court” convened for the first time in 1920 to investigate charges of homosexuality on campus. Its actions were unknown until 2002, when The Crimson published a feature on the court, which originally expelled nine students and readmitted two.
The recent movement—called “Their Day in the Yard”—was launched in June 2010 by a “student of Harvard University, who wants to help the expelled students achieve the recognition that they deserve, before she graduates,” according to its website.
This “student of Harvard University” says in an interview that she wishes to remain to anonymous because of her affiliation with the University as an Extension School student. Since the summer, however, she says she has collaborated with Jacob M. Krueger, a student at the Divinity School, and Stan Richardson, who wrote a play based on the events of the Secret Court that premiered several weeks ago in New York City.
Originally a Facebook petition, “Their Day in the Yard” has now launched its own website and begun to win support within the Harvard community. Faculty members such as Sociology Lecturer Kaia Stern have signed their names to the petition, which now has 270 supporters.
“I wholeheartedly encourage others to spread the word,” wrote Stern in a post on the movement’s website, “so that we can finally give these seven students ‘Their Day in the Yard.’”
REMEMBERING THE PAST
Unsatisfied with the formal apology issued by former University President Lawrence H. Summers on behalf of Harvard after The Crimson reported on the Secret Court in 2002, the Extension School student says that she hopes the persecuted students from the 1920s will not merely be awarded degrees but honorary degrees this coming May.
“I applaud [Summers] for making the statement, but I don’t think it’s enough,” she says. “I don’t want to forget it. I want to learn from it...I want to see Harvard grow from it.”
“An actual degree would be better than nothing, but their reputation has been damaged so badly by Harvard,” the individual adds. “The best way to correct it would be to bestow honor upon them with a special degree. If I was the president of Harvard, this is what I would do.”
But Harvard’s actual president does not necessarily agree about how best to remember the past.
In an interview, University President Drew G. Faust says that although Harvard has rarely given posthumous degrees to people other than “John Adams or someone like that,” the issue is likely to inspire discussion if it is brought up.
“What should Harvard do about things in the past? Issues like excluding women or blacks? There’s a long history—how do you think about what the past has been?” Faust says. “What I’d like to do is to direct our attention and learn from the past in order to inspire ourselves to be better in the future, because the present and the future is what matters.”
History shapes how we approach the present, but we can’t undo the past,” she adds. “What we can do is make sure that we learn from it.”
According to Jeff A. Neal, spokesman for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, FAS does not award posthumous degrees except in the rare case of a student who completes all academic requirements for the degree but dies before the degree has been conferred.
Richardson and the Extension School student maintain that most, if not all, of the expelled students were in good standing to graduate before the Court expelled them from the College and ruined their reputations. Some, they says, were just a few weeks shy of completing their degree requirements.
Richardson, who leafed through hundreds of pages of archival material in researching “Veritas,” his recent award-winning play on the subject, says that “a couple of the guys were like five days from graduating.” He offered the example of Keith P. Smerage ’21, who was expelled for homosexual activity and committed suicide 10 years later without the Harvard degree he would have earned had the University not terminated his career.
“He was so eloquent in his hopes for himself, what he thought Harvard could do for him and what he could do for the world,” Richardson says of Smerage. “He just couldn’t pull it together after this and committed suicide 10 years later.”
WAITING FOR CHANGE
On campus, the queer community is awaiting the University’s decision and pondering the implications of continued silence from Massachusetts Hall.
“Frankly, I can’t imagine a viable argument for not awarding these posthumous degrees,” says Timothy P. McCarthy ’93, who serves on the board of directors of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus. “It’s too little, too late, of course, but late is better than never.”
“I would be curious to see what the justification for refusal would be, and what a suggested alternative would be,” says Marco Chan ’11, co-chair of Harvard Queer Students and Allies.
Richardson, who is not a Harvard affiliate, says that a refusal to grant these posthumous degrees would send a “really terrible message to students at Harvard right now who are LGBT, who would have been rooted out 90 years ago.”
“If Harvard doesn’t grant these, they’re saying that this is just not as important as the people we’re granting awards to this year,” Richardson says. “Why should Meryl Streep, Whoopi Goldberg, or—I don’t know—Lady Gaga receive an honorary degree from Harvard next May?”
LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE
Thus far, Krueger—a longtime friend of Richardson’s—says that “Their Day in the Yard” will first attempt to join forces with the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus before contacting the administration.
“Once we find out who our supporters are, we can contact the administration,” Kruger says.
The movement has set a tentative deadline of the 2011 Commencement—when the Extension School student will earn her own diploma—to persuade the administration to award the honorary degrees.
“I just realized that I didn’t really want to graduate from an institution that wouldn’t acknowledge its history like this,” she says. “I’m surprisingly optimistic that this is possible. I have to be.”
—Staff writer James K. Mcauley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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