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30,000 Chairs: Planning Harvard’s Triple Commencement

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On Thursday, thousands of students, family members, and friends inundated Harvard Yard for the Class of 2022’s Commencement. On Sunday, tens of thousands more will do the same in celebration of the Classes of 2020 and 2021.

This year’s festivities mark Harvard’s first triple commencement in history and its first in-person ceremony in three years. Though up to two years have passed since some graduates were last on campus, nearly 90 percent of the Classes of 2020 and 2021 are expected to return for their in-person exercises on Sunday.

An occasion of this magnitude demanded careful preparation, administrators say.

In his remarks to the Class of 2022 during their Commencement on Thursday, University President Lawrence S. Bacow alluded to the logistical challenges associated with welcoming tens of thousands of people to campus — the “great seat scramble of 2022.”

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“With all the commencements going on — dual commencements, extended commencements, just like we’re doing here — we actually had problems finding enough chairs,” Bacow said. “Half of you almost wound up sitting on blankets today.”

Due to the impact of the pandemic, the University needed to expand the source of vendors for rentals this year, University spokesperson Jason A. Newton wrote in a statement. Set-up for this year’s Commencement festivities included hundreds of tables, up to 175 tents, and more than 30 thousand chairs.

In all, it took a full year and the involvement of “nearly all” administrative divisions to plan the events, Newton wrote. Thousands of dining, parking, transportation, and custodial staff, as well as more than a thousand faculty and administrator volunteers are involved in this year’s exercises.

Harvard offered financial assistance to members of the Classes of 2020 and 2021 who needed aid for travel, accommodations, and regalia costs, University spokesperson Christopher M. Hennessy wrote in a statement. Hennessy wrote that discussions regarding financial support for the returning graduates have been ongoing since November.

Hennessy added that the University aimed to make the celebrations accessible with no registration fees or costs for meals and other Commencement festivities.

In a May interview, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana credited the success of Commencement planning and attendance to the work of the Harvard Alumni Association, the office of University President Lawrence S. Bacow, and Thomas A. Dingman ’67, the special advisor to the Class of 2020 and 2021 joint Commencement.

Philip W. Lovejoy, the outgoing executive director of the HAA, wrote in an emailed statement that the association is “thrilled” to celebrate the Classes of 2020 and 2021 at an “extraordinary time.”

“We’re inspired by the positive response of so many returning to campus to be with each other, not only to look back and commemorate their time as students, but also to begin what we hope will be a lifelong fellowship in the Harvard alumni community,” he wrote.

Lovejoy also thanked the efforts of “tireless” alumni and other volunteers who helped plan the joint Commencement.

“We’re grateful to all of our colleagues across the university, and for the leadership and generous support from President Bacow and the deans of the College and the graduate schools, which have made this celebration possible,” Lovejoy wrote.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed the Class of 2022 at their Commencement on Thursday. United States Attorney General Merrick B. Garland ’74 will address the Classes of 2020 and 2021 at their in-person ceremony on Sunday.

—Staff writer Leah J. Teichholtz can be reached at leah.teichholtz@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @LeahTeichholtz.

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