fb-pixel Skip to main content

Harvard’s quirky graduation rituals

In celebrating its 361st commencement today, Harvard University will reach back through the centuries to once again summon traditions deep and dear. Here is a look at some of the college’s time-honored — and quaintly curious — graduation rituals.

The Happy Committee

Alumni just don’t show up for the festivities and food. Members of the Committee for the

Members of the committee for the Happy Observance of Commencement escort guests and marshal the afternoon procession.Harvard University

Happy Observance of Commencement escort guests, dignitaries, and students at commencement; assist with the alumni “spreads,” or lunches; and marshal the afternoon procession. They are recognized by their regalia: top hats and tails for men; all-black outfits adorned with crimson cockades for women; and batons for both.


3 legs better than 4

During the ceremony, Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, will repose in a three-legged chair purchased by Edward Holyoke, the college’s president from 1737-1769. The chair, crafted from ­European ash and American oak, resides in the Fogg Art ­Museum and is an elegant but under­stated commencement prop each year. In 2011, undergraduate speaker Kathleen ­Coulson mused that its lack of a fourth leg signifies “our learning opportunities are not over.”

Bona fortuna

Who says Latin is a dead language? In a nod to Harvard’s classical roots, one graduating student is chosen to deliver a short speech in Latin during the morning commencement ceremony. If audience members’ Latin is rusty, they may be out of luck: Only graduating seniors are provided with translations. In 1985, Thomas J. McGuire accented his speech with a toga. His advice: Quandocumque officium vocat, audite! Whenever duty calls, listen!

Badges of honor

Commencement gowns are adorned with a feature unique to Harvard: embroidered “crow’s

The “crow’s feet” emblem is worn on graduates’ academic robes. This red one signifies the Divinity School.Harvard University

feet” emblems. Students who earned degrees wear two emblems, while honorary degree recipients get three. Different colors signify the students’ respective faculties or schools: scarlet for the divinity school, for ­example; light blue for education; purple for law; and green for medicine.


Here comes the sheriff

“Sheriff, pray give us order!” With that cry, the Middlesex sheriff, clad in a top hat and morning coat, pounds his staff three times and declares, “This meeting will be in order,” to officially begin commencement. This year will mark the second opening ceremony for Sheriff Peter J. ­Koutoujian, a Kennedy School graduate. He will not arrive in Harvard Yard atop a white steed as sheriffs once did. According to lore, they were invited during the 17th century to control rowdy students and alumni who overindulged in punch and ale.

Ringing in the new

Attention, Cambridge residents: The sound you will hear just after 11:30 Thursday morning is not an emergency preparedness drill. It’s the tintinnabulation of bells from neighboring churches and institutions to celebrate the end of commencement. They include the Memorial Church tower, Lowell House, Harvard Business School, Harvard Divinity School, the historic 13-bell “Harvard Chime” of Christ Church Cambridge, the Church of the New Jerusalem, First Church Congregational, First Parish Unitarian Universalist, St. Paul Roman Catholic Church, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, University Lutheran Church, Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, and St. Anthony’s Church.

Sources: Harvard University, Harvard Magazine, news reports.