Commencement marked by cheers, tears, and a surprise

Moments of individual pride and collective congratulations marked Yale’s 312th Commencement ceremony on May 20.
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Yale College students cheer upon receiving President Richard C. Levin's official approval of their degrees. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

The Commencement ceremony was proceeding as usual: More than 3,000 students from Yale College and the University’s graduate and professional schools had marched onto Old Campus in all their academic finery; their respective deans had presented — and received presidential approval for — petitions to grant degrees; and honorary doctorates had been conferred on nine individuals who have made outstanding contributions to their fields.

Then Provost Benjamin Polak announced the presentation of a 10th  honorary degree: a Doctor of Humane Letters to Yale President Richard C. Levin, who will step down from that post on June 30 after 20 years of service.

That the award was unexpected was evident from the President’s surprised reaction (at one point, he brushed tears from his eyes), and that it was a much-approved honor was signaled by the standing ovation that greeted the announcement.

The presidential tribute was just one of many moments of individual pride and collective congratulations that marked Yale’s 312th Commencement ceremony on May 20.

Academic spectacle

The sun was hidden behind the clouds as Yale officials, graduates, and their guests converged on Old Campus to the music of the Yale Concert Band.

Many of those in academic robes sported hoods of varied colors — pink, green, blue, purple, yellow, white, and more — and most wore mortarboards topped with tassels and, occasionally, other ornamentations, such as halos (for the Divinity School), lush greenery (for the School of Forestry & Environmental Science), and miniature structures (for the School of Architecture).

Winners of prizes at Senior Class Day carried special flags in the procession. (Photo by Michael Marsland)
Undergraduates showed their loyalties to their respective residential colleges by waving flags and other objects, such as the red foam axes mimicking the one on the Morse College crest. The winners of awards announced at Senior Class Day on May 19 carried special banners in the procession.

One regular feature of Yale graduation in recent years is the presence of large screens broadcasting real-time images from Old Campus. Spotting themselves on camera, many graduates waved to their friends and families, and at one point, the live coverage sparked a “wave” of cheering students across the crowd.

Expressing gratitude

In his welcoming remarks to the assembled, Levin said: “We gather to recognize the accomplishments of all of you who have worked so hard to complete your programs of study. We salute your effort, your diligence, your challenge, and your intellect. We also join in expressing gratitude to all who have supported you in these endeavors: your families and friends, teachers, and other members of the community.”

University Chaplain Sharon M.K. Kugler followed with a prayer that read, in part, “We who share this beautiful but broken earth, we who look at the same moon and the same sun, are a people called to communal restoration. … From this moment on infuse our hearts with an imaginative daring, one that stirs us to become vibrant, living examples of ‘shalom,’ of ‘salaam,’ of ‘shanti,’ of ‘peace.’ For this we say ‘amen.’”

One by one, the deans of Yale College and the graduate and professional schools then came forward to present their candidates for degrees. When Yale College Dean Mary Miller finished her formal request, the members of the senior class stood and cheered so loudly and so long that the President was prompted to remind them, “You haven’t graduated yet,” before formally bestowing their degrees. Students representing the College and schools were presented with diplomas by the President; individual degrees were awarded later at separate ceremonies.

Honorary degree recipients

Two Yale alumni — an entrepreneur and a jurist — were among the nine individuals slated to receive honorary degrees for their achievements. The 2013 honorees were:

  • John Adams, American composer and conductor: Doctor of Music
  • Vinton Cerf, vice president and “chief Internet evangelist,” Google Inc.: Doctor of Engineering and Technology
  • Elizabeth Clark, professor of religion and of history, Duke University: Doctor of Divinity
  • Edwidge Danticat, author and activist for social justice in Haiti: Doctor of Letters
  • Natalie Zemon Davis, professor of history, Princeton University: Doctor of Humanities
  • Esther Duflo, founder and director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, and professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Doctor of Social Sciences
  • William Kentridge, South African artist: Doctor of Fine Arts
  • Frederick Smith ’66 B.A., founder and CEO of FedEx: Doctor of Humane Letters
  • Sonia Sotomayor ’79 J.D., U.S. Supreme Court justice: Doctor of Laws

Doctorate honoring Levin

After the surprise announcement of the 10th honorary degree to Levin, Edward P. Bass ’67, ’68 B.S., senior fellow of the Yale Corporation, came forth to read the citation, which began:

“You stand among the great presidents in Yale’s history. After 20 years of extraordinary service as President of this University, you leave Yale strengthened in every important dimension. …”

The citation went on to praise Levin’s accomplishments: strengthening the faculty, promoting research while “insisting that teaching remain at the heart of this institution,” increasing student diversity, advancing the University’s role as a global university, restoring and expanding campus facilities, reducing Yale’s carbon footprint, and serving as a vital partner in New Haven’s renaissance.

It concluded:

“Since you first arrived in New Haven in 1970 as a graduate student, you have embodied the ethos of Yale: commitment to excellence, to truth, and to service. As our President, you have led Yale with those same values, and with a decisiveness to act with wisdom and courage.”

All who love this University take joy and confidence in knowing that the legacy of your service will benefit Yale forever. We express today our deep gratitude by conferring upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.”

Read all the honorands’ citations.

Marking one last step

The Commencement ceremony concluded with a Benediction from Yale Divinity School Dean Gregory E. Sterling, who said, “We mark one last step, and anticipate many new paths by turning to you who know no transition. … Give these graduates creativity to see what others have not, courage to attempt what others have not, and compassion to serve those who have not.”

As the Yale Concert Band once more began to play, the graduates and guests began to make their way slowing from Old Campus, en route to the special ceremonies being hosted by their residential colleges and school, and to their final good-byes.

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