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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

A Changing Clubhouse, a Changing Faculty

Professors look back on their personal haunt.

By Radhika Jain and Kevin J. Wu, Crimson Staff Writers

Dean of the Extension School Michael Shinagel went to the Faculty Club for the first time when he was a graduate student, as a guest of late English professor Howard Mumford Jones.

Over lunch—a rare honor for Shinagel, as the Club was generally reserved for Harvard’s most senior echelon of faculty and administration—Jones outlined his vision for their work on a foundation together. “He said, ‘Michael, we will reign jointly like the two kings of Sparta,’” Shinagel recalls. “‘One to admire, and one to perform.’”

Shinagel smiles in his recollection of that first visit. He would eventually serve as a member of the Club’s Managing Board, its most recent president, and a member of the Advisory Board. Over “many a luncheon” at the Club’s renowned Long Table, he would woo new faculty members for the extension school, of which he has been dean since 1975. At the Club, he met visionaries and politicians, wined and dined his colleagues, and put up good friends in the guest rooms on the third floor.

And most recently, in early November, his son was married there in a ceremony with a minister, 60 guests, and a full brunch.

At his lunch with Shinagel so many decades ago, Jones finished his grandiose plan with a humorous—albeit poignant—one-liner. “‘I shall admire,’” he told Shinagel.

That conversation presaged Shinagel’s service to the University. But once a mainstay for the professor progressing through decades of a career at Harvard, the Club today is less likely to serve as the center of professorial social life.

Over time, it has opened its doors to new segments of Harvard’s community, and the nature of the faculty has changed. Once the professors’ clubhouse, the Faculty Club is no longer just the faculty’s club.

OLD MEETS NEW

In days past, women were confined to the Club’s “Ladies Dining Room.” Casual dancing for faculty members took place every Saturday evening. And in 1939, an entertainment committee was created to organize social events for the faculty members.

On a Saturday night 60 years later, the second floor of the Club is likely to be swarming with patrons dressed to the nines. The Faculty Club hosts close to fifty weddings a year, sometimes multiple in a weekend during the busy summer season. The groom might straighten his bow tie in Room Seven; the bride touches up her makeup and soothes her jitters in Room Ten.

On any other day during the school year, these same rooms will be set up for career fairs, company presentations, and community gatherings. On one fall afternoon, the Club hosts McKinsey and Co., the Boston Fulbright Committee, and Chabad House, its hand-painted walls now soaking in corporate and scholarly chatter and the prayers and aspirations of countless students.

One floor up, a dozen doors are flung open to reveal soft-lit chambers with the slanted roofs of a top floor and the small scale of another century; only the small flat-screen televisions set subtly against the paisley wallpaper betray a twenty-first century lodging. The maid says they are almost always booked, and the midday lull is anything but a lull for her as she scrambles to ready the rooms for a new stream of guests.

The basement, too, is empty. Just two years ago, the staff of the Theatre Room would have been bracing themselves for the lunchtime rush as professors dropped by for an inexpensive meal.

Sunlight streams into the conservatory of the Harvard Faculty Club, speckling the gold-embossed plates on the table and the fresh-flower arrangements every few place settings. Glasses and decanters gleam behind the bar, which serves not just fine wines but also Harvard’s Harpoon-brewed specialty beer called “1636.” Club staff wander in and out as they set up the Club’s three first-floor dining rooms for lunch-time buffet. Until 2 p.m., faculty members and their guests will trickle in for one of the fancier—and more expensive—lunch options in the area.

To the right lies the North dining room, once the “Ladies Dining Room,” currently set with tables for four.

Another right brings one to the main dining room. Forty years ago, the focal point of this dark-paneled, luxuriously curtained room was the “long table”—a single dining table which faculty frequented for lunch and conversation.

THE LONG TABLE

For decades, the long table formed the heart of the Faculty Club.

“At the long table, anyone could sit if there was a space, and all conversations were open,” says mechanical engineering professor Frederick H. Abernathy.

Regulars like Abernathy came from all over the University to take their meals here at least once a week, if not every day. Occasionally, former University President Derek C. Bok and former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry S. Rosovsky would join them.

Dialogue at the table was vibrant and interdisciplinary; faculty members recounted their travels, discussed their scholarship, debated current events, or shared family stories. Conversation flowed easily over the clatter of cutlery and professors recall the colorful personalities that turned a routine lunch hour into a highlight of the day—from the economist John Kenneth “Ken” Galbraith relating information from FBI documents, to staff members becoming like family.

“I recall some of the managers. One of them for a long time was a very fat guy who must have weighed around 300 pounds. He had a tie clip that was a knife and fork,” Rosovsky says. “Another was a German, and quite severe.”

For lunch, patrons could choose from entrées such as “purée of potato soup with leeks” or “minced goose à la Creole,” followed by frozen pudding, assorted fruits, or cheese. One of the more peculiar dishes joined the menu because of World War II’s meat shortage: horse steak, commonly referred to as “traveler’s delight.”

“It was like—like flavored dental floss,” remembers Shinagel. “It was the most talked about thing on the menu.”

In an adjoining dining room, famous philosophy professor Willard Van Orman Quine and history professor Harry A. Wolfson once held an invitation-only table of their own.

“They would sometimes gesture for other people to join them for lunch—and that was a great honor,” professor emeritus Gerald Holton remembers.

MEMBERS ONLY

Stories about the Club such as Holton’s suggest an aura of elitism and exclusivity that professors do not deny.

“The place itself exuded an atmosphere of considerable importance and dignity,” says Holton, who was first invited to the Faculty Club as a graduate student in physics in the mid-1940s.

Indeed, the Club was built with exclusivity in mind. Armed with an anonymous $25,000 donation from now-identified Allston Burr, the Harvard Corporation set out to erect a new social space for its faculty in 1929. The building, which replaced a yellow “town-and-gown” clubhouse for the Cambridge community at large, would eventually cost just over 12 times that amount.

When it opened in 1931, alcohol was not yet served in accordance with Prohibition restrictions—and the Club would not obtain a license for wine or beer until 1960. Men were required to wear coats and ties; women only received full membership in 1968.

Not even all of Harvard’s male faculty members were fully integrated into the community of the Club. Only tenured professors, for example, congregated around the long table. It was much more difficult for junior faculty, who came and went and lacked long-standing institutional ties, to penetrate the tight-knit social circle of senior professors.

And at some point in the early 90s, the tradition of long table lunch gradually faded, replaced by a dozen smaller tables scattered across the room. Seats were closer to each other, but oddly, the new setting felt less intimate.

A DIFFERENT MENU

Nearly every wall of the Faculty Club is covered in frames: oil portraits of bygone presidents and benefactors, black-and-white photographs of old sports teams, seemingly ancient maps of Harvard, and a cascade of priceless works lent from the Harvard Art Museum’s collection.

Many of the images are a reminder of the “importance” that faculty members remember, the institutional pedigree and elite patronage for which the Club was known. At one time, for example, men would not have entered the Club dressed in anything but suits and ties.

Now, Rosovsky gestures to his own tie-less collar—the new normal. “The University has changed in a way—the ‘clubbiness’ of the whole university in a sense has declined,” Rosovsky muses. “Clubbiness is not contemporary.”

The Club is still bustling, but staff members cater to a different crowd. Potential departmental hires, celebrities, and foreign dignitaries are all likely to pass through, escorted by faculty members trying to impress. Professors frequently rub shoulders with relatives at family weddings, but less frequently share a meal with their colleagues. And students march over the Club’s carpeted interior for information sessions, special dinners, and interviews.

Even those spaces unique to faculty members have evolved. After the Long Table stopped serving, an inexpensive lunch buffet was introduced, tucked under the spiral staircase that faces the Club’s entrance and named after the many vintage posters framed along its blue-paneled walls. In many ways a less formal version of the Long Table, the buffet welcomed professors, lecturers, graduate students, and their guests, offering a quick and relatively inexpensive bite.

“You’d get out of there for under 10 bucks,” Sociology professor Christopher Winship says. “They made you a sandwich and there was specialty pizza.”

For Abernathy, a daily highlight was the fruit bowl, where faculty served themselves. “You can pile on as much as the bowl, and I was very good at being able to walk with a pyramid,” he says.

Though the buffet closed abruptly in 2011, faculty can still eat lunch in the conservatory—and rave about the food and service when they go—but the bill can easily tally at three times the prices they paid for the buffet.

FLOATING APART

Some professors suggest that some of these spaces have disappeared because of financial constraints, But they also admit that as academic culture has changed, faculty members no longer look to the Faculty Club as their Club.

When Abernathy took his meals at the Long Table, lunch was a mandatory occasion for him and his colleagues on the Third Floor of Pierce Hall. “Someone would pound on your door,” he says, and an excuse of “‘I got to get this lecture done,’” was quickly overridden.

Today, most agree that the idea of communal lunch is much less common than it was before. Faculty take lunch alone, at their desks—between writing books, planning classes, and conducting research, a leisurely, conversation-filled lunch hour is a rare luxury.

“That’s one of the things that I think has been lost...to find out how someone from biology relates to someone from philosophy,” says Shinagel. “I think one of the problems—the University has become cut into little pieces, into departments.”

And yet some see the decline of the faculty at the Faculty Club as an inevitable consequence of a diverse academic body.

“Ken Galbraith once described the Harvard faculty as like polar bears,” says Shinagel. “Each on its own ice floe.”

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Kevin J. Wu can be reached at kwu@college.harvard.edu.

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