HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES
Presidential Wit and Wisdom Spark Baccalaureate Service
By Alvin Powell
Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine and Radcliffe President Linda S. Wilson, as well as the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, and other clergy who offered prayers at the service, did not disappoint.
Rudenstine noted that among this year's departing seniors are the last women to graduate from Radcliffe College.
With Radcliffe set to become an institute within Harvard, Wilson said this is also a commencement for her. She urged graduates to embrace change and to make the best of times of transition. In their lifetimes, today's graduates are likely to see a changing workplace brought about by the computer revolution, new changes to social mores, as well as a continued reshaping of the roles of men and women within families and society.
"Change is exciting, unsettling and necessary," Wilson said. "I hope you will give yourself the time, space, and attention to deal with transitions in life, because they are a process, not an event."
The service reflected the diversity of contemporary Harvard and included readings in English, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Arabic from a variety of religious texts, including the Koran, the Hebrew Bible, the Kalisantarana Upanishad, and the Christian New Testament.
The Baccalaureate Service is almost as old as Harvard itself and was part of Harvard's first commencement in 1642. It gives Harvard officials and clergy a chance to address graduating seniors alone before Commencement Day.
"It is a way of celebrating what you have done and wishing you well in the many years ahead of you," Gomes said as he introduced the service.
Parents and friends, who cheered and shot photographs as seniors marched into the church, were able to hear the service through speakers set up outside the Memorial Church in Tercentenary Theatre.
Students began lining up in the Old Yard about 20 minutes before the 2 p.m. service. They marched behind a Class of 1999 banner, doffing their caps to the John Harvard Statue before winding their way into Tercentenary Theatre and marching up the steps into the church.
The heat prompted many students to tote along plastic water bottles, which were prohibited from the church and left in a pile at Gomes' feet as he greeted students on their way in and asked them to zip up their gowns as they entered.
Once inside, though, the heat in the church trumped decorum. First mortarboards and then gowns came off as the temperature rose. Speeches were accompanied by the flapping of programs and mortarboards pressed into service as fans.
Rudenstine started his talk with some remniscences of Radcliffe's beginnings. The concerns of President Charles William Eliot that he'd have to pay for a beefed-up police presence to keep young men and women apart seem humorous today, as does a Crimson editorial stating that the very idea of coeducation "strikes us as nothing short of ridiculous."
Rudenstine told the women graduates not to rest, because much remains to be done to further equality of both education and achievement in the workplace. He went on to deliver some good-natured jabs at the male graduates for "our persistent delusions of adequacy," and quoted some prominent women writers such as Nancy Astor who commented, "Yes, of course I married beneath me. All women do."
In the end, though, Rudenstine brought men and women together with his sage advice on how to live up to Harvard's ideal: "As you live your life, do try not to be boring."
Rudenstine's comment drew loud applause from the graduates, some of whom said, humor aside, it is also good advice.
"I liked his line, 'Try not to be boring,' " said Elizabeth Buzney, a biochemistry concentrator from Adams House. "I think it's neat to be the last class of Radcliffe. I think it's the right move."
Another student said the speech touched on several areas important to outgoing seniors.
"It was the most amazing speech I've ever heard the president give," said Angelos Kottas, a Quincy House computer science concentrator. "I loved the humor, and he raised a number of relevant issues for graduates."
Brendan Daly, a concentrator in music and Romance languages and literatures from Currier House, said he thought it was appropriate that Radcliffe figured prominently in the speeches. The light tone struck by Rudenstine helped beat the heat, he added.
In his speech, Rudenstine sought to offer some perspective on times in life when the path ahead does not seem clear. Those times will come and go, he said, but what's important is to always strive to take care of those close to you.
"Remember, there are many paths leading from Alpha to Omega and the real design may only begin to emergy when you are rather far along the way," Rudenstine said. "Be generous and affectionate to yourself and to others. You will do well you have already done so very well."
Copyright 1999 President and Fellows of Harvard College