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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Harvard Forms Committee to Plan Online Ceremony, Prepares for Postponed Traditional Commencement Exercises

University President Lawrence S. Bacow's offices are located in Massachusetts Hall.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow's offices are located in Massachusetts Hall. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writer

University President Lawrence S. Bacow said in an interview Monday that Harvard has formed a committee to plan for an online graduation ceremony and begun to develop arrangements for its postponed 369th Commencement Exercises.

After heeding advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as its own faculty, Harvard announced on March 20 that it would indefinitely postpone its 369th Commencement Exercises.

Thousands of family members, faculty, and alumni normally travel from around the world to Harvard Yard to participate in the traditional Commencement Exercises, which Bacow wrote in his announcement are “almost as old as the University itself.” The exercises include graduates of Harvard’s 12 schools. Washington Post executive editor Martin “Marty” Baron was scheduled to speak this year.

“No virtual gathering can possibly match the splendor of our usual festivities, but we will come together online on Thursday, May 28, to award degrees so that everyone will graduate as expected,” he wrote at the time. “Each School at Harvard will also host its own special online event and afterwards deliver diplomas through the mail.”

Since the decision, administrators put together a committee to oversee the planning and logistics of the initial online ceremony. Bacow said the University is working celebrating the Class of 2020 in a “joyous” way.

Since the school’s first commencement in 1642, Harvard’s commencement exercises have been canceled roughly nine times due to “wars and plagues,” according to the Harvard Gazette, a University-run publication.

For now, Bacow said the Class of 2020 should expect to receive their diplomas by mail.

“People will want the physical diploma, which they are entitled to and should receive,” he said.

During traditional commencement exercises, alumni also return to campus for class-wide reunions. Bacow said the May 28 virtual ceremony is aimed at conferring degrees and that the Harvard Alumni Association is doing its own planning for the annual reunions.

Bacow said the University has not yet selected a date for the postponed in-person celebration.

“We can’t have an in-person celebration until we can have people back on campus,” he said. “We’re waiting to see when that will be possible.”

Bacow added that Harvard would consider holding the postponed in-person celebration in conjunction with the Class of 2021's commencement.

“It’s possible,” Bacow said. “But we’ll have to see.”

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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