20 May 2022

Special Preview: 2022 Commencement and Special Commencement and Reunion Weekend


by Shona Simkin

Over the next week, the Harvard Business School campus will be in high gear for an unprecedented number of events and celebrations. More than 250,000 square feet of tenting (a tad under the combined total of Spangler and Aldrich); 10,000 chairs; 20,000 feet of electrical cords; 800 pounds of cheese; 2,720 pounds (over a ton) of chicken; 25 cases of cauliflower—all for more than 20,000 guests celebrating the MBA and Doctoral Classes of 2022 Class Day and Commencement, and the MBA and Doctoral Classes of 2020 and 2021 special commencements and reunions.

After two years of pandemic-related cancellations and delays, the School—and Harvard University—is going all out to honor the graduates and recent alumni who missed their chance to cross the stage on Baker Lawn, to celebrate with their family and friends on campus, and to convene and catch up with their classmates.

Many staff on campus have never participated in these capstone events, and are just now becoming familiar with the HBS campus in full spring bloom. These events are a chance for everyone in the HBS community to engage, celebrate, and reflect. Below are just some of the details and behind the scenes of the festivities—to really get a sense of them, we encourage everyone to be on campus and join in the fun.

MBA and Doctoral Classes of 2022 Commencement (Thursday, May 26)

The formal Commencement activities begin at 7:00 am with the graduates gathering in their regalia outside of Chao. They walk across the Weeks Bridge, accompanied by HBS staff as Commencement marshal aides, to Tercentenary Theater in Harvard Yard for the University Commencement.

For Ellen Mahoney, chief human resources officer and longtime marshal aide, the procession is one of her favorite events of the year. “The joy, camaraderie, relief, and hope in the air is palatable. The students arrive close to an hour before the procession starts, so in addition to ensuring they are in the right places, we chat with them, take group pictures, listen in on their memories and plans, and soak in their joy.”

After the speeches and degree conferrals, the students return to HBS for lunch and the diploma ceremony on Baker Lawn. Until 2000, commencement ceremonies were conducted on Aldrich lawn—the construction of Hawes necessitated the move to Baker Lawn, which now, with the backdrop of the Charles River and the University, feels like its natural home.

Planning this year’s celebrations has been particularly meaningful for all involved. From the MBA and Doctoral Program staff to operations, food service, landscaping, custodial, sustainability, media services, and marketing and communications, just to name a few, it’s been great to dust off the cobwebs after two years.

“For those of us who have been here for commencement, it’s like riding a bike. But half of our Doctoral Programs team haven’t participated in an in-person commencement, so it’s been really fun helping newer staff understand how exciting the event is and to see how their pre-work goes into making this a magical experience for our graduates,” said Marais Young, associate director of the Doctoral Program.

“It’s really exciting to think of commencement coming back, it’s a day that all of campus really comes together to support this event,” said Elizabeth Kennedy, associate director of campus services. “Even in years when it's been rainy, hot, or in perfect weather, people are really happy and families are excited to be on campus. You see all the hard work you’ve put into it come together, the impact you have on the community on that day, which is something you don’t always get to see.”

Mike Murphy, director of student activities, MBA Student and Academic Services, has two aspects of the celebrations that he is most looking forward to experiencing again. “We allow students with young children to cross the stage together. In the Hamilton courtyard there is a staging area for children, and it’s the most adorable thing we do all year-–they’re dressed up, excited, and when their parent comes down to get them, you see their eyes light up and they run and jump into their arms,” he said. “And, at the ceremony, I make sure that each graduate has their name card to hand to Robin Smith, who calls their name. That means that I’m the last person the graduate sees before they go up the ramp to receive their diploma. So I get to see all these students I’ve worked with for the past two years one more time and give them congratulations before their big moment. That was not available to me for the last two years, and I’m excited to do it again.”

Classes of 2020 and 2021 Special Commencement and Reunion Weekend, May 28-29

The Baker Lawn stage will remain in place through the weekend for the first-ever special commencement for the two classes who were unable to have their ceremonies in person. The entire University is celebrating the classes of 2020 and 2021 with a morning degree-conferral ceremony in Tercentenary Theater, followed by individual ceremonies and events at each school. For HBS, it was a chance to re-imagine how to best celebrate graduates who had such unusual and isolated experiences.

“The whole idea is bringing a special experience to classes that really missed out, and to recognize that COVID had a huge impact on their experience,” said Nancy Boccia, lead for the special commencement events. “HBS works best when everyone is working together in their sections and teams—that’s the magic of HBS. We’re trying to help them remember and give them another glimpse of what that magic is—to keep that feeling of being on campus, to find it and explode it. This is a University-wide venture, it’s a tremendous amount of organization and commitment to make this work. Having every school involved made it incredibly complex, but it also made it very exciting.”

Celebrations begin with One-Year Reunion events for both classes—welcome receptions, section dinners, and formal galas on Friday night, followed on Saturday by a special reception for family and friends, self-guided campus tours, and faculty programs. Sunday mirrors traditional HBS commencement ceremonies with the procession to Tercentenary Theater, degree conferral, and a return to HBS for diploma ceremonies and luncheons.

Top on the list of priorities for those planning the events was honoring the classes’ desire for the pomp and circumstance of a standard commencement. Class representatives made it clear that while parties and festivities were wonderful, it was really the ritual and tradition that they missed the most.

But as this is a departure from the standard run of events in May, there are a few extenuating circumstances to heighten the planning and coordination—the most notable being Boston Calling, the three-day music festival held in the Harvard Athletic Complex, adjacent to the HBS campus. Shows begin in the early afternoon each day, with sound checks in the morning. On Sunday, headliner Metallica was persuaded to do their mid-morning sound check earlier in the day while alumni will be in Harvard Yard rather than at HBS, but even an official master of puppets couldn’t orchestrate more than a few hours of quiet for the HBS stage program.

The ceremony on Baker Lawn will be more fluid to accommodate two classes in a very narrow time window. There will be a new space for sections to muster in Hamilton courtyard, with a specific time for each section to arrive and line up just ahead of their stage crossing moment. Activities and food stations will be scattered across campus to keep the graduates and their families engaged as the sections are called to the stage—musicians, live art, food and drink carts with specialty items like frozen adult Capri Sun packs, and even a magician.

Planning, Participation, and Excitement

We talked with many departments across the School who were instrumental in the planning process. The single theme for all of them was the palpable excitement of participating in these celebrations and ceremonies again after two years.

For Cassie Brown, associate director in External Relations, lead for the three One-Year Reunions (MBA Class of 2019’s delayed reunion was the weekend of May 7-8), it’s been particularly meaningful to hear how much it means to alumni to return to campus and to work with departments across the School.

“So many staff are coming together to work on this. We don’t have many opportunities to overlap with departments like the MBA Program because we focus on different populations. It’s been nice to learn more about the student experience, and it’s directly improved how I work with the young alumni as I have a better grasp of their time as students. It’s been an unexpected bonus,” said Brown. “It feels really good to be part of providing the classes of 2020 and 2021 with this opportunity to come together. We’re producing something that we’ve never done before, and it’s been challenging and fun and I’m excited to see everyone experience it.”

Gabe Handel, assistant dean for administrative and educational affairs, concurred. “After a long pandemic it will be extraordinary to share in the joy of our graduates and their families as they experience all of the tradition, pomp, and circumstance Harvard and Harvard Business School have to offer, and all of the hospitality and warmth of the HBS community will be on full display,” he said. “It’s always such a pleasure to see how people from across HBS come together to deliver on extraordinary things. Planning this was extra special because it not only connected departments who don’t traditionally work on these activities together but also involved codesign work with classes of 2020 and 2021. It’s amazing how the spirit of one HBS comes out in moments like this.”

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