Celebrating Alumni, Anew

Changes afoot for Harvard’s annual alumni meeting

Harvard alumni in their Commencement day finery preparing for the traditional alumni parade
The traditional alumni parade will remain an enjoyable part of the new celebration. (This photo was taken in 2014.) Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Plans are underway to create “exciting, dynamic programming” for the Harvard Alumni Association’s (HAA) newly reorganized annual meeting on June 3, according to executive director Philip Lovejoy. The decision to move the 152nd meeting, traditionally held on the afternoon of Commencement Day, to the end of the following week links it more directly to the (also moved) alumni reunions, enabling a fuller focus on the broadening alumni network. “It was increasingly becoming an extension of Commencement,” Lovejoy notes, “as opposed to a true celebration of the alumni community.” The choice also comes amid growing concerns about availability of physical space and hospitality resources for 30,000-plus people—graduating students, their friends and families, Harvard administrators and faculty, and alumni attending major reunions—who have typically converged in Cambridge during Commencement week.

With Harvard graduating more students each year, the alumni ranks continue to swell, and existing models for such campus gatherings were becoming unsustainable. The break in organizing logistics for both events—they were canceled in 2020 and held virtually in 2021 because of the pandemic—has helped lead to the re-thinking about purpose and forums. The online celebrations for Commencement and the annual meeting necessitated their separation, and allowed for re-focus on the respective content, Lovejoy points out. It turned out to work well, he adds, and the realignment gained support as a permanent shift.

“It’s an opportunity to recognize that over time the growth of the community has been a limiting factor on what can happen in the course of one day and in one space,” says Katie Duffy McDonnell ’01, Ed.M. ’07, leader of the subcommittee working group of the HAA’s venerable Happy Observance of Commencement Committee that’s exploring ideas for the new meeting’s content and programming. This new tradition means, she adds, that the back-to-back campus events “can receive a deeper treatment, in recognizing Commencement Day and the new graduates, and then [holding] the annual celebration of alumni, with invitations to the broader alumni community.”

Some changes are expected. The Commencement speaker will still appear on Commencement Day, but during the Morning Exercises (the precedent set virtually during the past two spring celebrations). The annual meeting will also host its own guest speaker—an alumna or alumnus (last year, poet Kevin Young ’92, now director of the National Museum of African American history and culture; see harvardmag.com/comm-kevin-young-21). Aspects of the traditional program will remain: the alumni parade, awarding of Harvard Medals, recognition of alumni volunteers, remarks by various University leaders (including President Lawrence S. Bacow), and robust musical interludes. Other details are still under discussion. The subcommittee is surveying groups of alumni for ideas about meeting content and will produce “guiding principles to keep in mind as we think about what the celebration can be,” McDonnell says. Considerations include how the meeting can unite and celebrate alumni and maintain their engaged relationship to the University; what traditions are meaningful, and what new ones might be initiated; and how the traditions can represent and include the contemporary, global alumni—two-thirds of whom earned degrees from the graduate schools.

 “We’re starting to call it the alumni celebration” instead of a meeting, Lovejoy explains. “I think it’s important that it be dynamic and fun—a celebratory experience” devoted to the University’s nearly 400,000 (and growing) alumni worldwide.

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