Harvard Postpones 370th Commencement, Ruth J. Simmons To Speak at Virtual Ceremony


Harvard will postpone its Commencement Exercises and hold a virtual ceremony in May for the second consecutive year to heed public health guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced Friday.

Ruth J. Simmons, the president of Prairie View A&M University, will be the virtual ceremony’s principal speaker. Simmons previously served as the president of Brown University from 2001 to 2012, making her the first Black president of an Ivy League institution and first female president of Brown. From 1995 to 2001, she served as the president of Smith College.

Bacow pledged Friday to welcome the Class of 2021 back to campus for an in-person celebration “one day” — a promise he also made last year to the Class of 2020.

“Though circumstances may well improve by spring, it takes months of planning to prepare for our usual festivities, which draw to campus and to Cambridge thousands of people from around the world,” Bacow wrote. “Right now, the risk posed by that possibility is too great.”


Simmons was seen as a contender for the presidency of Harvard in 2006. She testified in defense of the College’s admissions process at the high-profile 2018 admissions trial.

“Having led a women’s college, an Ivy League research university, and a historically black university, she has a unique perspective on how very different types of institutions contribute to the fabric of our nation,” Bacow wrote.

The May ceremony will feature a University-wide virtual “celebration” followed by smaller virtual events held by each school. Graduates will receive their diplomas in the mail following commencement.

The first time Harvard’s Commencement Exercises were cancelled was due to a smallpox outbreak in 1752. Before 2020, the event had been held in person every year since 1780.

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.