Behind the Scenes of Commencement
Up Close: People have long been curious about what it’s like to be a student at Harvard Business School, and increasingly they are also interested in how the best-known school of management manages itself. Beginning with today’s story on Commencement, we are launching a new series called Up Close, featuring the day-to-day work of the School and the people who do it.
31 May 2017   Christian Camerota

Commencement is the single largest event of the year at Harvard Business School. As Executive Dean for Administration Angela Crispi describes it, it is “a hopeful and tangible representation of the work and mission we share—to educate leaders who make a difference in the world.” Behind the pomp and pageantry of this formal and celebratory occasion, there is a dedicated team from across the School who begin planning months in advance to send graduating students off in style. Here is an Up Close look at HBS Commencement.

History and Tradition

There have been over 100 Commencement ceremonies at Harvard Business School; 107 to be exact. Each one is a poignant occasion.

“Commencement is one of the few moments where all the different waves of activity here on campus seem to sync up,” said Assistant Dean for Administrative and Educational Affairs Gabe Handel. “So much effort goes into making Harvard Business School the place that it is, and helping it fulfill its mission. It’s so fitting that everyone involved has the chance to see the culmination of all of their hard work at the same moment.”


Along with its long tradition comes the School’s continuous focus on improvement, making sure the year’s capstone event lives up to its billing. Until 2000, the ceremony was held on Aldrich Lawn, prior to the construction of Hawes Hall. The subsequent move to Baker Lawn has enhanced the setting, as attendees now see the stage against the backdrop of the Charles River and the University beyond—a tangible representation of HBS’s place in the broader Harvard ecosystem. Meanwhile, the lunch and reception that follow have been moved to tented tennis courts beside Shad Hall, which has maintained seating capacity but recreated it in a dryer, warmer environment. The importance of that change is most evident when the dew point drops.

“We’re always trying to see where we can make changes that will make a positive difference and enhance the guest and graduate experience,” said Chris Ramsay, the director of campus services at HBS. “Spring in New England can be tough, but I think we’re very nimble and adapt well to whatever the weather throws at us.”

The HBS Operations team, of which Ramsay is a part, handles much of the event’s logistical work, as well as the setup and breakdown of the increasingly intricate Commencement accoutrements. These now include some 10,000 chairs, more than 200,000 square feet of tents, and over 20,000 feet of electrical cords. Large screens have been added to flank the stage and project the vibrant social media and live feeds of the ceremony, ensuring that no seat of the 6,000 on Baker Lawn is a bad one and that every attendee is able to fully enjoy the moment their graduate crosses the stage.

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This year, Operations added flair to communal areas–a pop-up piano next to Morgan Hall for the musically inclined, and HBS-branded banners in front of Baker Library where graduates and guests could pose for pictures, which ended up being an especially popular addition. Crispi and Dean Nitin Nohria praised School staff and the approximately 100 HBS volunteers for their work “cheerfully passing out ponchos and programs” and going out of their way to welcome and attend to guests. As they put it, “spirits were not dampened” despite the rain, and many volunteers and community members took home some of the 900 geraniums that once lined the Baker stage to brighten their homes as they brightened the campus.

There was another striking visual in Spangler Hall, as well, where guests and graduates took in the Portrait Project, an initiative coordinated by the HBS Office of MBA Marketing and Communications. The annual project features graduating students answering a prompt from a Mary Oliver poem: What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Tony Deifell (MBA 2002) first asked the question of his graduating class, then paired their responses with his own black and white photographs. Now in its sixteenth year, the Portrait Project exhibition is on display throughout Commencement week, with glimpses featured on the large screens during the HBS Class Day and diploma ceremonies.

The Walk Across the Weeks Bridge

Commencement day begins early in the morning for graduating students, who start lining up by section on Harvard Way as early as 6:30. Dean Nohria and his family often come out of their front door to greet and wish the students well and take pictures with them as part of the farewell festivities. Once organized and provided with special HBS flags to wave at key moments, students trek across the Weeks Bridge to the broader Harvard Commencement ceremony before returning to campus for the HBS diploma ceremony later that afternoon. The bell in Baker library sounds at the conclusion of the Harvard ceremony, the only time of year it rings.

For a sense of the day’s importance, consider that 99 percent of HBS students attend the diploma ceremony each year. To ensure it runs smoothly, four HBS staff members label each chair on Baker Lawn with the graduate’s name. Additionally, the School takes great care to plan for dual degree candidates, particularly MD/MBA graduates, who walk the stage first and then must be given time to travel between HBS and HMS or other Harvard schools to receive their other degree.

“The events of the week are timed down to the minute,” Handel said. “We have extensive records on how much time is needed for each section’s graduates to cross the stage. And graduates who wish to walk in multiple ceremonies are always front-of-mind for us as we plan.”

The Ceremony's Unsung Hero

Another crucial component of the diploma ceremony is the correct pacing and pronunciation of the nearly 1,000 graduating students’ names. Given the breadth of nationalities represented in each MBA and Doctoral class (the Class of 2017, for instance, has 64 different citizenships), all from varying language traditions, it is no easy task. From 2001 to 2015, the job was handled with aplomb by Els Sweeney, who made a deep impression on her colleagues thanks to her winning personality and meticulous preparation. During those 14 years, Sweeney called out 13,574 Doctoral and MBA degree candidate names.

“Els was a lovely woman,” recalled Robin Smith, a staff assistant in MBA Student and Academic Services and Sweeney’s successor. “She was full of life, so warmhearted, and she took this responsibility very seriously.”

“Els was a lovely woman. She was full of life, so warmhearted, and she took this responsibility very seriously.”

Smith began work as Sweeney’s understudy in 2015, when Associate Director of MBA Student and Academic Services Mike Murphy approached her about being part of the ceremony. Despite her long tenure in the position, Sweeney was waging a heroic battle against cancer at the time and would possibly need help making it through the three-hour ceremony.

“I immediately said yes,” Smith said, “because I knew it would be such a pleasure to work with Els.”

For two months leading up to the event, Smith and Sweeney met one or two times per week, each time for several hours. Smith would click through recordings on students’ online name cards so that Sweeney could hear the student’s own pronunciation, and then she would practice it herself. Every name received the same treatment, even simpler-looking ones, given possible variabilities in pronunciation. Attention to detail was paramount. As the ceremony approached, however, Sweeney’s condition worsened, which made the process both difficult and poignant.

“Els was a cancer survivor and, unfortunately, that year her cancer returned,” Smith recalled. “I remember her being very sick the morning of Commencement. But she was incredibly strong, and said it was important for her to participate one last time.”

Sweeney ended up reading through eight of the ten student sections before Smith took over for the final two. Though she passed away some days afterward, Sweeney left a lasting legacy with the care and passion she displayed in her role, and the personality she displayed beyond it, and those are things Smith still recalls in her own preparation.

Today, Smith is the official voice of HBS Commencement, a role she said suits her because of her theatre background. She also appreciates the unique vantage point her spot on stage offers.

“I’m not the tallest person in the world,” Smith said. “So it’s great to be up at the podium looking out over a sea of smiling faces. Nerves are definitely a part of it, but I just ride the wave and use that energy to push myself through the ceremony.”


Since 2015, Commencement has featured completely compostable to-go ware and utensils to bring the event as close to zero-waste as possible. The HBS Green Team, with overwhelming support from Operations and Restaurant Associates, coordinates 50 volunteer shifts throughout the day to staff 22 waste reduction sorting stations across campus. Their efforts are aimed at helping attendees properly use the three-bin system to maximize composting and recycling and minimize waste. This infrastructure has already helped HBS to reduce its waste disposed by 66 percent per person in the 2016 fiscal year, far exceeding the 50 percent reduction goal set by the University for 2020. In addition, 1,200 leftover boxed lunches from the 2017 ceremony were donated to Food for Free, a Cambridge-based nonprofit organization that brings food directly to isolated seniors and people with disabilities.

Along with their new diplomas and many fond memories, guests were also able to take home some of the 900 geraniums that once lined the Baker stage.

Commencement By the Numbers

The MBA Class of 2017 represents 64 different citizenship countries from all around the world, and they are supported by more than 5,000 family guests attending the Commencement ceremony. A few more interesting tallies:

10,000+ chairs in total, 6,000+ on Baker lawn

230,000 sq. feet of tents erected, about the footprints of Spangler and Baker Lawn put together

20,000+ feet of electrical cords utilized for lighting, AV, and other event needs

6,200+ boxed lunches served on Commencement Day

1,200 boxed lunches donated to Food for Free

900 geraniums taken home by community members

10,000+ staffing hours


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