The 8 Coolest Things About Harvard Commencement

So I graduated from Harvard yesterday. It was an amazing experience that I was able to accomplish and share thanks to the support of my wonderful wife and family. The weather was beautiful and the campus was spotless. Aside from the grueling pair of 15-hour days (Class Day and Commencement), it was worth it. In fact, funny enough, offers for job interviews literally started arriving in my e-mail inbox immediately after I had the Harvard diploma in my hand. Crazy.

Enough about me, I wanted to take a moment to share some of the coolest things about Harvard Commencement and also show you some of the great speeches that were delivered during the exercises on both Class Day and Commencement. Enjoy!

1. The Commencement ‘Sheriff’

Harvard Commencement begins with the cry, “Sheriff, pray give us order!”

That would be a call to the Middlesex and Suffolk county sheriffs, who will be wearing handsome top hats, morning coats, and striped pants with swords and scabbards at the belt. And they’ll be riding white horses. Pounding his staff three times, the Middlesex sheriff will signal the start of Commencement, decreeing, nay, YELLING “This meeting will be in order!” As lore has it, the sheriffs were originally invited during the 17th century to control unruly or drunk students and alumni by horseback. Today, smartly dressed sheriffs continue fêting Commencement atop those noble alabaster steeds — with a few bumps in their road.

2. Latin (It’s Not Quite Dead Yet)

There was a staggering amount of Latin spoken at the Harvard Commencement exercises. In fact, entire 10-minute speeches were delivered in Latin. Now that’s devotion to a dead language. The speeches, while spoken in Latin, were translated into English on the programs and were actually quite hilarious. The speeches were all inside jokes, jabs at Yale, funny stories, and more. Fun fact: Only graduating seniors and graduate students are given translations of the Latin speech. So unless you’re versed in the ancient language, you’re out of luck.

Back in the 1800s, the first scholar in the class traditionally gave an oration in Greek, while other scholars spoke to the assembly in Latin and Hebrew. Every student studied all three classical tongues. Latin was the language not only of the first disputations and thesis defenses but also of the President when he conferred degrees. Harvard students had to study Latin until 1883, the Commencement program was in Latin from 1866 to 1943 (preceded by mixed English and Latin), and College diplomas came in Latin until 1960.

Aside from my name, my Harvard diploma is 100% in Latin.

3. The President’s 3-Legged Chair

Harvard Presidents have almost always sat on a three-legged chair during Commencement. In fact, the undergraduate speech was entirely devoted to the symbolic importance of this chair! Purchased by Harvard President Edward Holyoke, who served from 1737 to 1769, the famed seat now rests in the Fogg Art Museum, where it’s removed at Commencement for Harvard’s president to repose in. But the chair’s unique look matches its precarious origin and history.

But this President’s Chair was not always tucked away for special occasions. Old reports suggest it resided in one of Harvard’s libraries, and gave young men the right to kiss any lady he was showing around, and who happened to sit in it. Few will argue the strange regal quality of the chair, but its usage was intended for something far less romantic than royalty and making out. Its true destiny was as a domestic piece of furniture. That’s right, just your average, everyday, humble chair. Who would’ve thought?

4. The Historical Significance

Highlights of Commencement include those sometimes famous, sometimes groundbreaking, but ultimately unforgettable, speechmakers. There are two speakers: one for Class Day, one for Afternoon Exercises.

The Senior Class Committee has invited Class Day speakers since 1968, when Coretta Scott King delivered an inaugural address, taking the place of her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had been assassinated two months earlier. She told the crowd: “Your generation must speak out with righteous indignation against the forces which are seeking to destroy us.”

5. The Secret / Surprise Recipients of Honorary Degrees

Honorands are also kept confidential until Commencement Day — though that didn’t stop the German media. In 1964, news of West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard’s honorary degree spread through German news outlets, eventually reaching Harvard when a Crimson reporter wrote about it.

Did you know that Benjamin Franklin received the first honorary degree in 1753? Or that more than 2,000 honorary degrees were conferred before one was granted to a woman? That went to Helen Keller, Radcliffe Class of 1904. Honorands must receive their degrees in person.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received an impromptu serenade from Spanish tenor Placido Domingo to the delight and surprise of everyone in attendance. Truly magnificent.

This year’s recipients are below:

  • Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia
  • Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, Inventor of the WWW, HTML, and much more
  • Plácido Domingo, The incredible tenor
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The Supreme Court Justice
  • Dudley Herschbach, Nobel Prize winner and Harvard professor
  • James R. Houghton, Longest-serving member of the Harvard Corporation
  • Rosalind Krauss, A renowned critic and theorist of 20th century art
  • J.G.A. Pocock, Honored for his investigating of the foundations of modern political thought
  • David Satcher, The 16th U.S. surgeon general

6. So Many Bells

When Morning Exercises are over, bells across Cambridge will ring for 15 minutes. No, it’s not a fire drill or citywide warning — just another well-oiled practice.

At 11:30 a.m., for the 21st consecutive year, bells will ring from the Memorial Church tower, Lowell House, the Harvard Business School, Christ Church Cambridge, the Harvard Divinity School in Andover Hall, the Church of the New Jerusalem, First Church Congregational, First Parish Unitarian Universalist, St. Paul Roman Catholic Church, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, University Lutheran Church, Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, North Prospect United Church of Christ, and St. Anthony’s Church.

7. The Wacky History

In 1797 a live elephant was brought from Providence, Rhode Island, to be exhibited at Commencement, along with people dressed as mermaids and mummies, and displays of two-headed calves. The Indians of Natick were invited to compete with Harvard scholars in prize competitions of target shooting with bows and arrows. The Indians won.

8. The Celebrity Speeches

Alec Baldwin spoke at Harvard Law School and Amy Poehler spoke at Harvard College’s Class Day. Amy said “I can only assume I am here today because of my subtle and layered work in a timeless classic entitled, ‘Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” Poehler said, to Harvard’s graduating class of 2011. “And for that I say, you’re welcome.” At one point, the student introducing her called her the ‘Blond Tina Fey’ to which Amy responded by raising her middle finger at him (in a sort of joking manner…sort of.) Amy’s entire speech is fantastic.