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This is how Harvard handled online graduation: pretaped, with built-in hugging

This is how Harvard handled online graduation: pretaped, with built-in hugging
[Photo: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images]

On Thursday, Harvard University awarded over 8,000 degrees in a sleek, online ceremony—and no, it was not a Zoom bonanza of awkward transitions by career academics.

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Harvard left nothing to chance in front of thousands of parents paying hefty school loans for children now living at home. The pretaped, well-edited hour began with a healthy-looking Lawrence Bacow, Harvard’s president, who recently recovered from COVID-19, opening the festivities by warmly expounding upon the benefits of graduating at home.

“There are actually some upsides to this kind of celebration. Everyone you love, and everyone who loves you, can actually attend.”

See? Everything is fine. No crack-of-dawn arrivals at Harvard Yard for good seats necessary. No panicked search for parking in Harvard Square. And best of all, “loved ones can hug you just as your degree is conferred.”

Bacow then encouraged students to honor the loved ones who “sacrificed.” “Turn to them, say thank you, and go ahead, give them a big hug and kiss. They deserve it.” He waited. Sanctioned hugging is typically not on the Harvard program.

The ceremony’s production values were smile, outside, in sunny weather. Dozens of deans and dignitaries appeared for just a sentence or two, including a montage of notable Harvard graduates, from Senator Chuck Schumer of New York to Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, reading the same encouraging words: “You can be brave. You can make a difference. You can be an inspiration. You can save lives.”

Three taped speeches followed, two by students (“We might grab the moral arch of the universe itself. May we bend it in the right direction”), and one by Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post, whose earnest speech on commitment to facts and truth spanned a third of the ceremony and was the only divergence from the everything is okay tone.

Degrees were conferred quickly. Deans of each school, wearing graduation caps with varying degrees of puffiness, appeared one after another, speaking one sentence each, to present the degree candidates from their various schools. Some stood in front of their schools, while others showcased their back fences. Bacow then formally conferred degrees and again encouraged newly minted Harvard graduates to lean over and hug their loved ones. He waited.

The homiest touch came from Yo-Yo Ma, class of 1976, who played Bach in front of a bookcase, with a figurine over his shoulder that said The Buck Stops Here. 

The ceremony ended right on time, with dozens of ear-piece-wearing choir members singing from their bedrooms, closing with the chiming bell of Harvard’s Memorial Church. One hopes that Harvard’s 2025 reunions include make-up festivities, with all the crack-of-dawn scrambling and panicked parking that sun-dappled Harvard Square has to offer.

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