Commencement 372 7/8

A year of upheaval ends in passionate protests.

Commencement photos: Kennedy Schoolers ready to rule the world; Isabella E. Peña ’24 belts out the national anthem; a professor-student pose; ; pro-Palestinian protestors preparing to walk out

Clockwise from top left: Kennedy Schoolers ready to rule the world; Isabella E. Peña ’24 belts out the national anthem; a professor-student pose; ; pro-Palestinian protestors preparing to walk out  | PHOTOGRAPHS BY (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT): JENNIFER BEAUMONT/HARVARD MAGAZINE; JIM HARRISON; JENNIFER BEAUMONT/HARVARD MAGAZINE; NIKO YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE

During the baccalaureate in Tercentenary Theatre on Tuesday, May 21, interim president Alan M. Garber told the class of 2024, “On Thursday, we of divergent minds will process together into this space.” Come May 23, perhaps with a sense of premonition, he said, “As our ceremony proceeds, some among us may choose to take the liberty of expressing themselves to draw attention to events unfolding in the wider world. It is their right to do so. But it is their responsibility to do so with our community—and this occasion—in mind”—eliciting some boos. Divergent minds indeed, and careful what you wish for.

Ten days earlier, it was far from certain where the 373rd Commencement would take place. Pro-Palestinian protestors ended a 20-day encampment in the Old Yard only on May 14, understanding that Garber would rescind University-imposed sanctions of “involuntary leave” from Harvard. On May 17 they learned that the Administrative Board had found several undergraduates, including seniors, guilty of numerous infractions, resulting in probations and suspensions. That prompted further protests and a march on Garber’s home; a highly unusual Faculty of Arts and Sciences vote May 20 calling for the affected students, no longer in “good standing,” to get their degrees anyway; and a Corporation decision May 22 that they could not get their diplomas the next day (see “Locked In,” this issue).

The procedural rectitude—the College’s routine refusal to detail the violations and punishments, the Corporation’s outline of the niceties of disciplinary processes (and background materials taking a swipe at the faculty’s vote)—predictably turned the narrative over to students and their supporters. They promptly broadened their cause to free speech rights, fairness (undergraduates’ degrees withheld), and the professors’ role in governance (already a matter of contention), deftly widening the sphere of disaffection. Some further response during the morning exercises seemed certain.

Other events of the week felt remarkably unremarkable, given Harvard’s annus horribilis: divisions stemming from the Hamas terrorism in Israel and the war in Gaza, bitter recriminations about antisemitism and anti-Palestinian bias, congressional grillings, relentless news coverage. Many ROTC cadets were commissioned on Wednesday, and most class day rhetoric that afternoon was fairly classical. Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, told the Kennedy School graduates-to-be “it is the real world you are inheriting along with your Harvard degree.” At the Graduate School of Education, research professor Howard Gardner explained how his pedagogy had improved, and focused on “the heart of teaching.” Addressing climate change, Karenna Gore ’95 said at the Graduate School of Design, “It is not the earth that needs fixing, it is us.” And so on.

Divinity students Maria Dueñas Lopez, M.T.S. ’24, and Frances S. Lee, M.Div.’ 24 wearing wings

The angelic Maria Dueñas Lopez, M.T.S. ’24, and Frances S. Lee, M.Div.’ 24 | PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM HARRISON

But there were intimations of the year that was. In his baccalaureate address, Garber noted that he had been in office all of 140 days (from President Claudine Gay’s resignation on January 2). Phi Beta Kappa orator Drew Gilpin Faust, president emerita, reminded the young scholars about universities’ invaluable work—and pushed back hard at the critics who have savaged higher education of late (see “The Week’sWords,” this issue). The Radcliffe Medalist was Sonia Sotomayor, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court: the lead dissenter in the June 2023 opinion that outlawed consideration of race in college admissions—a Harvard practice first accepted by the Court in 1978.

It was the College’s class day, however, that really captured the chaotic state of affairs. Unable to attract any of their hoped-for marquee guest speakers, the undergraduates turned inward, revealing the roster (dean of admissions and financial aid William R. Fitzsimmons and Currier House security guard Bill Oliverio) only on May 20. More telling were the student speakers’ messages. Jeremy Ornstein said, “I am proud of us undisciplinables, including the people who speak out against the killing of innocents, even when it is unpopular….” Senior program marshals Tarina Ahuja and Shruthi Kumar read the names of classmates whom they said would be prevented from graduating, given their role in the Yard protest. A stage was being set.

The Old Yard encampment, begun April 24, made unclear whether Commencement would occur in the shadow of police-protestor clashes like those that threw Columbia into upheaval and metastasized across campuses nationwide. Harvard’s planners, normally worried about minor inconveniences like lousy weather, this year explored everything from cancellation or an online ceremony to festival rites in the Stadium. Once the protestors folded their tents May 14, preparations in Tercentenary Theatre proceeded at warp speed. But not every contingency could be anticipated.


 

Gino Domel, Ph.D. ’24, Chanthia Ma, Ph.D. ’24, M.D. ’26, Sonya Gupta, A.M. ’24, and Jonathan Boretsky, Ph.D. ’24
Julia Duvall, Lansing Sugita, and Veeraya Tanawattanacharoen—all M.D. ’24
Law School graduates, pre-bar exam
leverett house graduates
Clockwise from top left: Gino Domel, Ph.D. ’24, Chanthia Ma, Ph.D. ’24, M.D. ’26, Sonya Gupta, A.M. ’24, and Jonathan Boretsky, Ph.D. ’24; Julia Duvall, Lansing Sugita, and Veeraya Tanawattanacharoen—all M.D. ’24; Leverett House seniors; Law School graduates, pre-bar exam  | PHOTOGRAPHS BY (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT): JENNIFER BEAUMONT/HARVARD MAGAZINE(2); NIko YAITANES/HARVARD MAGAZINE; JENNIFER BEAUMONT/HARVARD MAGAZINE


 

As ticket-holders queued outside the gates early Thursday morning, Garber’s “wider world” intruded. The guests were greeted with an official-looking “program.” A clever duplicate, inside it honored “over 40,000 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis killed, 9,500 Palestinian political prisoners, 125 Israeli hostages…and the courageous students at Harvard…who have protested a genocide at significant personal and professional risk”: a manifesto for divestment, circulated by Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine. Overhead, planes towed a U.S. and an Israeli flag and a banner reading “Jewish Lives Matter.US.”

Within, a different ceremony began unfolding, too. As protestors mustered at Johnston Gate, outside Massachusetts Hall, the arriving honorands were diverted to Memorial Church. They and the president’s party, including the Corporation members, entered from the rear (perhaps avoiding student jeers); a reduced group of faculty, administrators, and dignitaries proceeded up the aisle from Widener Library. After the national anthem and prayers by Rabbi Getzel Davis and Imam Khalil Abdur-Rashid, Garber made his plea for civility and, briefly, the case that “no other type of institution does more good in the world” than research universities—jarringly, met by laughter, an omen of things to come.

Senior English orator Shruthi Kumar ’24
Shruthi Kumar ’24 | PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM HARRISON

The day pivoted on a blistering critique of the student-protestors’ punishment by the senior English orator, Shruthi Kumar, who had addressed her classmates the day before. Midway through her talk, taking a deep breath, she said, “As I stand before you today, I must take a moment to recognize my peers, the 13 undergraduates…who will not graduate today. I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience on campus.” Citing student, faculty, and staff petitioners in the students’ support, Kumar declared, “This is about civil rights and upholding democratic principles. The students had spoken. The faculty had spoken. Harvard, do you hear us? Harvard, do you hear us?”

What ensued was still Commencement, of a sort. Apparently anticipating the need for a swift, spare ceremony, the formal language for conferring degrees had been reduced to radically simplified presentations of candidates by each dean, and conferrals by Garber. But no sooner had the graduations begun with the Ph.D.s than amid chants of “Let them walk!” a significant number of degree candidates (principally College and divinity, law, and public health students) and faculty members walked out of Tercentenary Theatre. Turning their backs on the Corporation and administration, they proceeded to an alternate “People’s Commencement” for the protestors in the nearby Harvard-Epworth Methodist Church.

Protest march to the “People’s Commencement”
Protest march to the “People’s Commencement”| PHOTOGRAPH BY MAX J. KRUPNICK/HARVARD MAGAZINE

Other customs fell by the wayside, too. The anthem based on Psalm 78 (St. Martin’s), a tradition dating from the inception of Commencements, was skipped. Given the circumstances, the College class marshals and summa cum laude candidates were not invited to “draw near” the platform (protected by crimson-covered police barriers) for congratulations from the president and deans—the furthest thing from anyone’s thoughts.

In due course, the honorands (including popular twenty-ninth president Lawrence S. Bacow, now further admired for his impeccable timing in retiring a year ago) received their degrees—including a precedent: the first known use of “dude” in a citation (see opposite). Guest speaker Maria A. Ressa, a journalist and Nobel laureate, delivered a scorching analysis of the spread of social media and authoritarianism (see “The Week’s Words,” this issue). The brisk proceedings were adjourned at 11:55 a.m. Perhaps fifteen minutes later, the thunder from the stage was echoed by the real thing from the gray skies above. Call it Commencement 372 7/8: the 373rd ceremony, minus a fraction of its degree-recipients, and a like share of the familiar Harvard graduation rituals.

Drab graduation garb always brings out students’ latent artistic talents. From left:  Isha Vaish, S.M. ’24, in School of Engineering and Applied Sciences shades; Faisal Reza, M.P.H. ’24, and diploma-bear-ing teddy; Master-ing the grad cap
Drab graduation garb always brings out students’ latent artistic talents. From left:  Isha Vaish, S.M. ’24, in School of Engineering and Applied Sciences shades; Faisal Reza, M.P.H. ’24, and diploma-bear-ing teddy; Master-ing the grad cap| PHOTOGRAPHS BY (FROM LEFT): Jim harrison; JENNIFER BEAUMONT/harvard magazine; jim harrison

 

In a way, Garber got his wish: the protests took the form of an act of speech and withdrawal from the proceedings, rather than a physical disturbance or aggressive move toward the well-policed Commencement platform: in all, civil, and minimally disruptive of those focused on celebrating the day. Nonetheless, the proof of a campus severely divided was unmistakable.

In her introduction, Ressa thanked Claudine Gay for her invitation to speak. The former president was otherwise rendered invisible during the ceremony. What cannot be forgotten is that Gay’s congressional testimony last December 5 (panned as insensitive to antisemitism and impolitic) contained an accurate account of the real difficulties of sustaining free speech, no matter how troubling, within a context of productive academic discourse. That challenge remains equally daunting today, and resolving it as fundamental to the University’s mission of teaching and research. At the end of the year now past, managing to hold some sort of Commencement, while accommodating a sharp protest against the turbulent status quo, was at least some sign of a path forward for an institution devoted to the pursuit of Veritas.

Read a full account of Commencement, with speakers’ texts, at harvardmag.com/commencement-day-24.

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg

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