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Engineering Commencement

Innovations and traditions evolve with the history of MIT graduation.
The crowd gathers in Killian Court for MIT's Commencement in June 2011.
The crowd gathers in Killian Court for MIT's Commencement in June 2011.
Photo: M. Scott Brauer

In the past few weeks, Killian Court has undergone a transformation in preparation for MIT’s 146th Commencement: Shrubs have been planted, the grass meticulously mowed, nearly 14,000 chairs precisely aligned, and a stage — to be crossed by some 2,500 graduates — built and reinforced. On Friday, the riverside courtyard will teem with more than 10,000 guests: families and friends who will travel from near and far to watch their graduate receive a hard-earned diploma.

MIT’s graduation ceremony, much like Killian Court itself, has evolved over the years to accommodate new traditions and a growing student population.

This year will mark the 90th time that MIT has upheld what is perhaps its most ambitious Commencement tradition: handing graduates their personal diplomas as they walk across the stage. Prior to this practice, graduates simply picked their diplomas from a basket onstage, a procedure described as more of a “scramble,” according to an archival account in Technology Review.
In 1923, MIT introduced several innovations: academic regalia for faculty and graduates, and the awarding of individual diplomas. Samuel Wesley Stratton, MIT’s eighth president, handed each graduate an individual diploma from a pile stacked alphabetically to coordinate with the student procession. Another innovation of the day was a “loud-speaking apparatus,” which was so successful that it became a must-have for future Commencements and other MIT ceremonies.

Commencement locations have varied throughout MIT’s history, including Symphony Hall and New England Mutual Hall in Boston and the Walker Memorial Building and Rockwell Cage on campus. In 1979, organizers took a chance and moved the exercises outdoors to Killian Court, where they have remained ever since. At the inaugural ceremony, then-MIT president Jerome Wiesner remarked, “Today we begin a new tradition for the MIT Commencement, if it survives. We have put ourselves in the hands of the rain gods by uncaging this happy event and bringing it back to nature here in the Killian Court.”

Come rain or shine

Only once in the past 33 years has the ceremony been forced indoors by inclement weather: In 1992, torrential rains fell for days leading up to graduation, causing chairs to sink into Killian Court’s muddy grass. Commencement ceremonies relocated to Rockwell Cage, where graduates received their diplomas as families and guests waited in other locations on campus. Today, if Commencement were forced indoors by severe weather conditions, family and friends would be able to watch the ceremony in remote viewing locations across campus.

Tell us your graduation story
Event organizers consult a number of sources to predict the weather for Commencement, including a group of student meteorologists in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). As graduation nears, the group sends out regular weather reports; Managing Director of Institute Events Ted Johnson remembers one year in particular when EAPS professor Kerry Emanuel detected foul weather approaching a few days before Commencement.

“He came running out and said, ‘Clear Killian Court, there’s about to be some high winds,’” Johnson recalls. “And the sail [the covering over the stage] actually smacked the stage floor. So we’re watching those weather scenarios.”

On graduation day, the stage is a hive of activity: Staff from the Registrar’s Office work with pallets stacked with diplomas, sorted by school and department and arranged alphabetically by students’ names. As a student walks onstage, the registrar’s team hands her diploma to the president or provost, who then personally presents the diploma to the graduate. To ensure that a diploma doesn’t wind up in the wrong hands, there are no fewer than five checkpoints along the student procession to Killian Court. If a student is not present or out of line, volunteers can call staff members onstage, who can then quickly pull a diploma from the stack.

“The engineering by which we produce Commencement has not changed in years,” Johnson says. “It’s about getting your actual diploma and not giving someone an empty portfolio … and there have been at least three or four other schools who have contacted us to ask how we do that.”

A little fun amid formality

Paul Lagace, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, and faculty marshal for Commencement, says the graduation stage bears a relatively recent tradition that many in the audience may miss: During the ceremony, faculty members sitting onstage will often greet a special student with a handshake and a few encouraging words — a tradition Lagace dates to 1998, the year President Bill Clinton came to speak. That year, the ceremony was extra long, for several reasons: Clinton shared the stage with another guest speaker, pioneering AIDS researcher and physician David Ho MD ’78, and everyone attending had to go through long screening lines — a Secret Service precaution.

“There was Clinton, and there was his 300-pound Secret Service guy who was going to take the bullet for him,” Lagace recalls. “It was pretty tense onstage, and it was also pretty packed.”

Clinton was called away after his speech, and once he left, Lagace remembers the mood onstage shifted considerably.

“Before that year, it had been a relatively quiet stage,” Legace says. “That day, everyone let out a bit of tension, and faculty were saying ‘hi’ to students. … People just became more open, and it helped us realize that we can be formal, but still celebrate.”

Incidentally, Sal Khan ’98, MEng ’98, founder of the online Khan Academy, was one of a small number of graduates to personally receive his diploma from Clinton that year. Khan will deliver the keynote address at this year’s Commencement.

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