The main attraction for many will be the moment a single student — someone’s son or daughter or friend — crosses the stage in front of thousands to receive a diploma (or in the case of dual degrees, diplomas). The walk itself is short, and the moment can seem like a flash. But for many students, feeling that diploma in their hands is a pivotal experience, tangible payback for years of late-night problem sets and early morning classes. To make that moment happen seamlessly for thousands of students is itself an engineering feat that MIT has developed throughout its 150-year history.
In the past, MIT’s Commencement exercises have been held in various locations, including the Walker Memorial Building on campus, as well as Symphony Hall in Boston. Before the ceremony relocated to Killian Court in 1979, MIT students graduated in Rockwell Athletic Cage, MIT’s largest indoor space — which, back then, was floored with crushed cinder.
Paul Lagace ’78, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, was a member of the last MIT class to graduate in the Cage. “I remember walking in, and the brass was playing,” Lagace says. “And I can’t remember who in line turned and said, ‘Geez, I feel like the Christians going in to be fed to the lions at the Coliseum.’”
Lagace’s class suggested moving the exercises to Killian Court, a wish that was granted for the next graduating class in 1979. The scenic courtyard has hosted Commencement ever since, despite the yearly threat of inclement weather.
The court has also hosted its fair share of Commencement Day hacks. One of the most memorable occurred in 1996, when then-Vice President Al Gore came to speak. During the ceremony, members of the graduating class handed out bingo cards marked with Gore buzzwords, such as “information superhighway.” Each time one of Gore’s hallmark phrases came up in his speech, the audience marked it off on their boards. The vice president had been briefed on the hack, and played along, asking, “Did I say a buzzword?” in response to student shouts of “Bingo!”
A diploma in the hand
Today, MIT is one of only a few universities in the United States to award diplomas during its main Commencement ceremony. The diploma presentation is a tradition that dates back to the days of Samuel Wesley Stratton, who served as MIT’s eighth president from 1923 to 1930. Before Stratton’s tenure, as was the custom of the day, students would pick out their diplomas from a basket onstage.
Through the years, Commencement planners continue to uphold Institute tradition, ceremoniously presenting graduates with their individual diplomas. As class sizes have expanded, planners have developed new systems to assure that every student gets the correct diploma, and that no degree is improperly awarded.
Before Commencement Day, every single diploma is printed and sorted by school, department, and alphabetically by name, then systematically stacked and wheeled to Killian Court on the morning of graduation. The diplomas are placed on the stage, where staffers from the registrar's office hand them to presenters as students walk onstage.
To ensure that the right student gets the right diploma, volunteers are stationed at checkpoints all along the students’ procession route, from Johnson Athletic Center to Killian Court, and just before the stage. At each checkpoint, students are asked to give their name, which is checked against an alphabetical list matching the order of diplomas. If a student is out of order or missing, volunteers can call into the pit’s communication center through telephone lines in the courtyard, set up specifically for the event. Workers in the pit can then pull a diploma, saving time and confusion.
“There’s an awful lot of work that gets put into it,” Lagace says. “But the people who are involved wouldn’t want to do it any other way … it’s almost an expression of love for the students, saying, ‘Hey, you guys did a great job.’”
MIT family ties
This year, along with the graduating students, MIT will welcome several special guests, including Cambridge Mayor David Maher and Charles Arthur Compton ’51, a member of the 60th Reunion Class who is also the son of Karl Taylor Compton, president of MIT from 1930 to 1948. Another relative on hand will be President Compton’s great-granddaughter, who will receive her diploma on Friday.
This year’s Commencement speaker is Ursula M. Burns, chairman and chief executive officer of Xerox Corporation. Burns, who has been a member of the MIT Corporation since 2008, was trained as a mechanical engineer and is the first African-American woman to helm a Fortune 500 company. In addition to addressing this year’s graduating class, Burns will watch her son receive his MIT diploma on Friday.