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‘Unconventional’ Harvard 2024 Class Day Speakers Promote Optimism, Kindness

Beloved Currier House employee Bill Oliverio waves to the crowd at Harvard College's Class Day. Oliverio, alongside Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67, gave the keynote address at the annual undergraduate graduation ceremony.
Beloved Currier House employee Bill Oliverio waves to the crowd at Harvard College's Class Day. Oliverio, alongside Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons '67, gave the keynote address at the annual undergraduate graduation ceremony. By Julian J. Giordano
By Madeleine A. Hung and Joyce E. Kim, Crimson Staff Writers

Thousands of Harvard College graduates and their families flocked to Harvard Yard to celebrate Class Day 2024 on Wednesday, in a ceremony featuring occasional references to the 13 seniors barred from graduating due to their participation in the 20-day pro-Palestine encampment but no large-scale protests or disruptions.

Still, this year’s iteration of Class Day felt more than a little unusual: the Harvard Alumni Association, which struggled to secure an A- or even B-list celebrity to address the graduating class of seniors, instead chose two keynote speakers closer to home: Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 and Securitas employee Bill Oliverio.

Attendees braved the blazing heat to hear speeches from Harvard College Dean Rakesh Khurana, Fitzsimmons, Oliverio, and students — two of whom recognized the 15 seniors who were suspended or placed on probation by the Harvard College Administrative Board last week. Two of the 15 were initially slated to graduate in the winter.

Class of 2024 Program Marshals Tarina K. Ahuja ’24 and Shruthi S. Kumar ’24 read the first names of the 15 seniors during their joint speech, calling the senior class “incomplete” without them.

As they spoke, the status of the disciplined seniors was in limbo after the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted Monday to add their names to the list of degrees recommended for conferral. Minutes after the event wrapped up, the Harvard Corporation rejected the FAS’ effort to allow the students to graduate.

“Fifteen of our peers — intelligent, kind, and giving members of the Class of 2024 — have been disciplined for exercising their right to freedom of speech and peaceful protest,” Ahuja said. “We want to acknowledge and take time to recognize that they have been unable to celebrate their senior week and Commencement and participate in the jubilance of graduation in the same way as the rest of us.”

“As we stand here today, we want to recognize the pain and anxieties of these students and their families over the past week,” Kumar added.

The 15 seniors were among several disciplined by the Harvard College Administrative Board for their participation in the encampment, which came to a peaceful end just more than a week ago. The Ad Board suspended five students and placed at least 20 more on probation — a decision that the faculty voted to overrule during a Monday meeting.

During Khurana’s address, he largely avoided referencing the sanctions, which were widely condemned by both faculty and students. Instead, Khurana — who chairs the ad board — emphasized his intellectual vitality initiative amid fierce campus divisions stemming over the war in Israel and Gaza.

Khurana described the present as “a pivotal moment in history” of determining “whether an institution devoted to the pursuit of truth, veritas, can remain free from internal or external coercion.”

“We have to find common ground, and we have to remain open to changing our minds,” he said.

Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana touted his intellectual vitality initative during his speech at Harvard College's Class Day ceremony.
Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana touted his intellectual vitality initative during his speech at Harvard College's Class Day ceremony. By Julian J. Giordano

The ceremony also featured speeches from First Marshal Fez S. Zafar ’24 and Second Marshal Chibuikem C. Uche ’24, who recounted the “unconventional” journey of the Class of 2024: the College’s seniors entered Harvard during the Covid-19 pandemic and saw the abolition of the Undergraduate Council, the fall of race-conscious admissions, and most recently, a campus embroiled in controversies following Oct. 7.

During his keynote address, Oliverio joked about the Senior Class Committee’s wish list of high-profile speakers to give the keynote address at Class Day — and their unconventional choice to turn to internal candidates instead, after apparently struggling to find a keynote speaker.

“Notable candidates for speaker at the 2024 Harvard Class Day ceremony: Matt Damon, Drake. Who’s Drake, anyway? Me personally, I’m more of a Kendrick kind of guy,” Oliverio said, in reference to the ongoing viral feud between the two performers, which drew laughter from the crowd.

Oliverio reminded graduates to seize the present opportunity and appreciate those around them in his speech.

“Although the past four years, you have gone through the most difficult transitions of your life,” he said, “These people are your family, your friends. You have been by each others’ side.”

The ceremony also featured speeches by Harvard Orator Ben T. Elwy ’23-24, special remarks by Jeremy Ornstein ’24, and Ivy Orator Matthew W. Cole ’24.

The other featured keynote speaker, Fitzsimmons, also began his speech by joking about the unconventional choice to land him as speaker.

“You might wonder, what am I doing here?” he asked.

Fitzsimmons recounted Harvard’s progress since his time as a student — when women were not allowed in Lamont Library and each class had fewer students on financial aid and from diverse backgrounds — and noted 2008 as a point of financial crisis for Harvard.

“To me, it turned out to be one of the proudest and happiest moments I've ever seen at Harvard,” he said, before commending the expanded financial aid program.

“In 12 years we’re going to celebrate Harvard’s 400th year, and we have limitless possibilities sitting in front of us,” Fitzsimmons added. “Higher ed is coming back after the pandemic. There is so much to think about — what we have done here, what we can do.”

The ceremony concluded with a Class Day Ode performed by Isabella E. Peña ’24 and Brian Cheng ’24. Despite the musical offerings, however, many seniors and their families opted instead to leave the Yard early, sticky with sweat.

—Staff writer Madeleine A. Hung can be reached at madeleine.hung@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at joyce.kim@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X at @joycekim324.

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