Commencement Confetti

An omnium-gathering of notes and statistics, vital and otherwise


"Our records of the first Commencement, in 1642, show that all nine students received diplomas," President Lawrence H. Summers reported in his Baccalaureate address to the senior class on June 8. "We discovered that of the nine, one student graduated summa, one magna highest honors, one magna, three cum, and two cum laude general studies. As the mathematicians among you will have noted, there's a ninth student. The ninth student was forced to wear a scarlet B- for the rest of his life."

Eight students out of nine with honors, or 88.9 percent of the class, was pretty good, but the class of 2004 is more distinguished. Of the 1,585 degrees conferred June 10 at the College's 353rd Commencement, 75 were summa, 529 magna, and 832 cum laude — in all, 90.6 percent of the class. (Tighter, much more restrictive honors requirements take effect next year.)

Including the 10 graduate schools and Extension School, Harvard conferred 6,156 degrees and 271 certificates.


Agarwalla saluting
Photograph by Jim Harrison

This year for the first time a trot of the Latin Salutatory, one of the traditional student parts during formal Commencement exercises, was included in the programs of all attendees, instead of only in those of a favored few. To do this was a late-hour decision by officials as the universal appeal of the speaker's topic dawned on them. De Hominis harvardiensis Decursu, by Pankaj Kumar Agarwalla '04, of Dunster House and Glenn Dale, Maryland, traced the evolution of Homo harvardiensis from the freshman H. h. habilis, just beginning to become an overachiever; through H. h. erectus, as it rises in stature in the second year (but drinks from huge wine-jars and quotiens surgit totiens cadit, "falls over as often as it stands up"); and H. h. neanderthalensis, of large brain and solid bones, fit for the brutal third year; to Homo harvardiensis sapiens, "most masterful at avoiding its duties while working and sweating as little as possible."


The gates to the Yard opened at 6:45 a.m., 15 minutes earlier than in the past, and the formal exercises began at 9:45 and concluded at 11:30, all to allow more time for lunch. First through the gates at 6:45 were Commencement organizers, hastening to their posts, to be confronted by this outrage (below), perpetuated under cover of darkness: "MIT" writ in collapsed red lunch tables.

Photograph by Justin Ide / Harvard News Office


"Think things through," Summers instructed seniors in his Baccalaureate address. "Thinking things through means analyzing them carefully. It also means understanding not just your own perspectives, but also perspectives that threaten your own. Take as an example some of the most fateful decisions made by human beings, decisions about war and peace, decisions like the British failure to understand Hitler at Munich, or the American failure to understand what was and what was not at stake in Vietnam. Millions of people died, not at root because of moral failures but because of intellectual failures, failures of comprehension, failures brought on by weak analysis that overlooked the perspective of the adversary."


The fiftieth-reunion class mounted several symposiums featuring glitterati classmates (for more on the class, see "Longer-lasting Harvardians"). Collegiality in the U.S. Senate, said Senator Edward M. Kennedy '54 in a symposium on "Lives in Government and Politics," has nosedived and "is soon to join the ranks of handwritten letters — a quaint custom of the past." "Harvard in its mysterious heart somehow sensed that I wasn't the right sort," said novelist John Updike '54 in "Literary Life." "I had trouble getting into writing courses. I never got into Archibald MacLeish's course." A symposium on "Changes in the World of Finance" came right after the literary life and drew about 25 percent as many people. After a lot of talk about how finance had changed in the past 50 years, moderator Robert H. Mundheim '54, LL.B. '57, former teacher of corporate and securities law and professional responsibility, asked the panelists to comment on how values had also changed in the industry. Byron R. Wien '54, M.B.A. '56, investment strategist at Morgan Stanley, responded with a little sermonette on price-earnings ratios in the 1950s and today. Mundheim dryly observed that he had been referring to values in the sense of character and ethics.


All twenty-fifth-reunion symposiums were off the record "to allow for open and unfettered discussion by the panelists and as much free flowing exchange with the audience as possible." We make bold to record, however, that the class offered innovatively a venue in the Loker Commons coffee shop for unprogrammed yack by classmates, spouses, and guests, called "Hyde Park Corner."


For the first formal occasion of Commencement week, with most participants in academic garb, the Radcliffe Choral Society provided the voices for two anthems: "O gloriosa Domina," by William Byrd, and Jameson Marvin's arrangement of "He's gone away," the old folk tune. The 34 singers were in street clothes — very much so: for the soprano-solo parts of the folk tune, Caitlin Anna Matson '05, of Adams House and Belmont, Massachusetts, stepped to the front of the stage, just in front of President Summers, and sang, wearing baggy white pants and blue top, which in current collegiate style perfectly exposed her bare midriff.


Astrophysicist Ann Marie Cody '03, because of a peculiarity of the astronomy department's academic calendar, was eligible for this year's Captain Jonathan Fay Prize, awarded by the Radcliffe Institute for the most outstanding imaginative work or piece of research in any field by an undergraduate, and she won it for a pioneering senior thesis on stellar pollution by planets — a theory that a planet with an unstable orbit could migrate inward, fall into its star's atmosphere, and pollute it. Cody, of Harvard, Massachusetts, is now studying astrophysics at Cambridge University.


Display cases just inside the front door of Pusey Library contained books by members of the twenty-fifth and fiftieth reunion classes. John T. Bethell '54, secretary of his class, observed that "It is limited to one book per classmate. After they backed the truck up to the door and unloaded all of John Updike's books, there wouldn't have been room for anyone else." In a move to economize, the library's main entrance has been inoperative since last year's Commencement, bearing a large sign reading "Not an Entrance." (The salary of one book-checker has thereby been saved.) Reunioners wishing to view classmates' books, or visit the Archives, the Map Collection, or the Theatre Collection, gamely made their way by underground corridor from Lamont Library.


In a thunderstorm on the evening before Commencement, the top of a big elm, partly hollow, on the Boylston Hall side of Widener Library, fell to the ground. Five workers spent from 10 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. clearing all but the stump. Commencement superintendent Jason Luke '94 judged that had it fallen during the exercises, people might have been killed.


Make the most of your opportunities and enjoy the things that surprise, for making a plan and sticking to it for life are impossible, advised the Business School's Class Day speaker, the chairman and CEO of General Motors, George R. "Rick" Wagoner Jr., M.B.A. '77. He quoted Woody Allen: "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans."  


This year, for the first time, management erected two LED screens about halfway back in the sea of Commencement seats. They were 9 feet by 12 feet in size, raised 8 feet off the ground, anchored to Jersey barriers, and carried live video of the proceedings. Guests seemed pleased to have their viewing pleasure enhanced: at events at which they had an easy choice of seats — such as Class Day — many chose to put themselves in front of the TV screens. Audience members: gone is your face-in-a-crowd invisibility. The cameras may turn on you at any moment, catching you unaware, often with humorous effect. No more idiotic faces during the president’s address, no more nodding off. Speakers: gone is your comfortable distance from your listeners. They see you intimately. Every emotion flickering across your face is revealed, every pore exposed. Prediction for next year: studio makeup for all the principals.
Photographs by Stu Rosner

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