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Harvard Alumni Split Over Move to Separate Commencement from Reunion Events

Harvard alumni process into Tercentenary Theater during the 2013 Commencement Exercises.
Harvard alumni process into Tercentenary Theater during the 2013 Commencement Exercises. By John Y.C. Wang
By Cara J. Chang and Isabella B. Cho, Crimson Staff Writers

After learning in-person annual alumni events will be separated from Commencement for the first time this year, some Harvard alumni mourned the loss of intergenerational connections, even as many acknowledged the practical reasons behind the change.

Traditionally, the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association took place on the afternoon of Commencement, followed by Harvard College and Radcliffe class reunions. This year, the alumni events will take place the week after Commencement, with the annual alumni meeting on June 3.

In an email to alumni class officers on Dec. 2, 2021, outgoing HAA Executive Director Phillip W. Lovejoy said the increased size of Harvard’s graduating classes and alumni reunions necessitated the change. More than 8,000 students graduate from Harvard and more than 13,000 alumni attend reunions each year, restricting most graduates to two guests, he wrote.

“Moving Reunions to the week following Commencement gives alumni priority access to campus, housing, and hotels, a critical need we’ve been hearing from reunion volunteers over the past few years,” Lovejoy wrote.

This May, Harvard will juggle two Commencement ceremonies for three graduating classes. The University is already offering on-campus housing accommodations for graduates returning for the joint Commencement for the Classes of 2020 and 2021, and also pledged to provide group rates at local hotels for graduates and their families.

Lovejoy wrote he also hopes moving the annual alumni meeting will make it “a true celebration of the alumni community.” Many long-standing traditions, such as the beloved alumni parade, will be held the week after Commencement, he added.

But some alumni worry that the move will damage intergenerational relationships at Harvard.

Margaret M. “Peggy” Padnos ’70 also mourned the loss of the combined festivities, criticizing the University for treating the tradition as “disposable.”

“There is an undeniable chain connecting the Reunion classes with those newly minted grads, whether or not anyone notices,” she wrote in an email. “That stretch of history from back then to now is there to witness, to judge, to warn, to give hope.”

Peter I. “Zik” Armstrong III ’76 acknowledged overcrowding concerns in Harvard Yard but said he is “disappointed” that he will have fewer opportunities to connect with graduating seniors and younger alumni. Armstrong said he typically visits the senior picnic to congratulate fellow students of color.

Some alumni welcomed the change, however. Joanne S. Pugh ’54 said she believes the scheduling shift will reduce costs for alumni to return to campus.

“I can’t tell you how many people wanted to come and they said, ‘It’s just too expensive, and it’s too hard to find a place,’” she said. “Anything that alleviates that is a good thing.”

Rachel V. Kemp ’79 praised the change and said she believes alumni can take measures to engage with each other.

“If we as members of the Harvard community remain relevant and build initiatives that will keep us fresh within the community — and keep us interfacing on a multi-generational basis with everyone who constitutes the community — we will be just fine,” she said.

Edward J. “Ned” Notis-McConarty ’73 — co-chair of the Committee for the Happy Observance of Commencement, an alumni group that greets guests on Commencement Day in top hats and rosettes — said he was initially shocked by the decision, but conversations with younger alumni have since allowed him to better understand the change.

“Their reaction was quite different, which was, ‘My Commencement day was chock-full of a lot of things that had nothing to do with my graduation, including meetings of alumni in the afternoon and speeches that were directed only at alumni,’” he said. “Graduation day wasn’t exactly all it could be for the actual students who are graduating.”

Ultimately, Happy Committee Co-Chair Donna Gibson ’66 said this year’s alumni festivities will be a “trial balloon.”

“We’re going to have to sit down afterwards and take a good long look at how well this went,” she said.

Former Harvard College Dean Harry R. Lewis ’68 wrote on his personal blog that decoupling Commencement from annual alumni reunions separates what he calls the “Harvard family.”

“Something essential, some piece of Harvard’s soul, is being abandoned in treating students and alumni as disjoint groups,” he wrote.

“A graduating ceremony without alumni is just an ending, not both an ending and a beginning,” Lewis added.

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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