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Commencement Cannot Be An Empty Promise

By Helen Y. Wu
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

A Harvard Commencement should be a time for joy. It should be a celebration of years' worth of all-nighters and the fruits they bear; a bittersweet farewell full of hugs, pictures, and emotional goodbyes. Commencement marks the end of our time at Harvard — and our last chance to enjoy it before we leave.

But yet another class will graduate via pixels, leaving Cambridge without this traditional rite of passage. Last week, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced that Harvard would postpone its Commencement Exercises for the Class of 2021 and hold a virtual ceremony for the second consecutive year due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

The move is upsetting but warranted. We understand the public health imperative and commend Harvard for prioritizing our community's safety. As President Bacow pointed out, we can't predict what the pandemic will look like in the spring, and the risks associated with an incorrect guess are far too great. Commencement will just have to wait.

The question then becomes: Wait until when? And for what exactly?

Harvard has now reassured two separate senior classes that “one day” they will have an in-person graduation event, but has yet to offer any plan for what such a day might look like. Virtual commencement — bidding goodbye to friends and professors over glitchy Zooms, throwing an academic cap straight into your ceiling fan — is no way to end your college career. Our seniors deserve to know that someone within our vast university bureaucracy is actively figuring out when and how they’ll get to say their proper goodbyes. Giving the Classes of 2020 and 2021 a concrete indication — forming an advisory committee accountable to the task, for example — will help make this necessary yet painful loss easier to swallow.

In the meantime, Harvard could at least try to make Zoom commencement more appealing. The online experience will never match an in-person celebration, but that’s no reason to make it insufferably dull. Some of our professors — Professor Eddie Kohler in Computer Science 61: “Systems Programming and Machine Organization” and Professor Edward Glaeser in Economics 1011a: “Intermediate Microeconomics: Advanced”, to name a few — have done so much this year to move beyond just virtual lectures. The administration shouldn't limit itself to a glorified tape either — after all, what's the point of an Ivy brain-trust if you can't meet challenges with new, creative ideas? Let's approach virtual commencement with innovative dedication, and set an example for institutions facing similar challenges.

And speaking of setting examples: Regardless of its format, the virtual ceremony will be made brighter by the presence of principal speaker Ruth J. Simmons.

Simmons — the president of Prairie View A&M University, a historically black university; the former president of Brown University; and the first Black president of an Ivy League institution — is an exciting, inspirational pick for what might be an otherwise uninspiring ceremony. The initiatives she championed at Brown, establishing need-blind admissions and forcefully reckoning with the university’s ties to slavery, represent the best of higher education. She has shown a commitment to and understanding of the full range and importance of higher education in the United States, and we can’t wait to hear her speak.

If only the administration heard her too. There's an increasingly stark contrast between the choices Harvard makes in front of the world and those it makes in front of its students. This is, after all, the same Harvard that has just denied tenure review to political activist and beloved Professor Cornel West ’74; that denied tenure to award-winning ethnic studies scholar and Associate Professor Lorgia García Peña; that continues to resist the creation of a multicultural center on campus.

Perhaps that's the main takeaway from the commencement debacle: It’s bittersweet. Our university makes the right call in postponing the ceremony but offers no specifics or details to encourage our understandably let-down seniors. It invites a brilliant, forward-thinking speaker, yet does not follow her example in its own backyard. Harvard cannot let these gestures be empty promises.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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