Yale College Dean Mary Miller got more than she asked for when the class of 2009 received their degrees Monday.
At Class Day on Sunday, Miller told the 1,273 undergraduates to cheer when she asked University President Richard Levin to confer their degrees at Commencement. Indeed, when the time came on Monday, they roared, and the rockets of confetti and streamers the students shot in the air were an unexpected bonus.
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The sun split the morning clouds as 3,129 candidates for degrees from Yale’s 12 residential colleges and 12 graduate and professional schools marched onto Old Campus for the University’s 308th Commencement. Over 2,800 degrees were awarded Monday, as well as 10 honorary degrees conferred on luminaries, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73.
Monday’s hour-long ceremony, which was attended by some 18,000 spectators in a sea of white lawn chairs on Old Campus, mostly shunned the silly hats and skits of Class Day in favor of centuries-old traditions: hymns, benedictions and formal regalia.
Despite the recession, University officials said there were no cuts to this year’s Commencement festivities. In fact, the only threat to this year’s exercises was last month’s outbreak of swine flu — and perhaps forecasts for rainy weather. In the end, neither issue marred the students’ final day.
Levin appeared strong as ever Monday, even though he had undergone surgery for prostate cancer just a month ago.
For three University leaders – School of Management Dean Sharon Oster, Acting Dean of Yale Law School Kate Stith and Miller – it was their first time to present degrees.
“When they have been recommended by the faculty of the school and approved by the Corporation, I shall ask you to confer upon them these degrees,” Stith stressed in her first appearance in a Commencement ceremony. Indeed, the 226 students of Yale Law School — as well as 35 students in the School of Medicine —had yet to finish their school years after Commencement exercises were completed.
Those who were awarded an honorary degree this year included social entrepreneur William Drayton LAW ’70, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary journalist John McPhee, famed sculptor Richard Serra GRD ’64 and dancer Bill T. Jones, who crossed the stage with a pirouette and an Arabesque.
A former top University administrator also came back to campus to receive an honorary degree. The honorary doctorate degree of Humane Letters was awarded to Alison Richard, Yale’s longest-serving provost and now the first female vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.
But the most recognizable face among the honorands was the last: Clinton, who received an honorary doctorate of Laws. Her standing ovation — the only one for the 10 honorands — began before Salovey could finish her introduction: “Hillary Rodham Clinton, public servant.”
Earlier as she walked down the aisle towards the stage from Phelps Gate, dozens of attendees lifted their cameras above the crowds, attempting to take a picture of the former first lady. University President Richard Levin introduced all 10 degree recipients as “women and men” who are examples for Yale’s graduates to follow.
“We have known of your brilliance from your days as a student in the Yale Law School,” Levin told Clinton as he conferred her degree. “Now we admire your bravery in confronting ancient enmities, and your boldness in seeking peace.”
Clinton’s appearance Monday was not visibly disrupted by the news that North Korea had launched its second nuclear test. After the ceremony, she was seen at the Law School celebrating with the class of 2009.
Monday’s ceremony, the culmination of months of planning, capped a weekend of events for graduates and their families.
At the Baccalaureate Address in Woolsey Hall over the weekend, Levin urged graduates to “prove this time of crisis is also a time of opportunity.”
“You can do it,” he said. “Yes, you can.”
In keeping with tradition, there is no speaker at Commencement unless a sitting president is receiving an honorary degree. But Class Day’s speaker was Christopher Buckley ’75, who, in a self-deprecating and quote-laden speech, encouraged graduates to “go forth and speak the cool lines” and to find humor and opportunities in the “crummy economy that [my generation has] kindly provided you with.”
In addition to the awarding of University degrees, Yale officials awarded teaching prizes to six members of the faculty: mathematics adjunct professor Michael Frame, history assistant professor Beverly Gage ’94, history assistant professor Lillian Guerra, biology professor Mark Mooseker, political science professor and Branford College Master Steven Smith, and English senior lecturer Fred Strebeigh ’74.
A record number of seniors participated in this year’s senior gift, as 89 percent of the class helped raise $27,442.84, according to the Development Office.
In the end, Pierson College had the highest participation rate, with 96 percent of seniors making donations. Saybrook College had the lowest rate, with only 76 percent.
Perhaps the only hitch in the proceedings was an altercation involving Handsome Dan XVI during the procession. As the bulldog passed by the band, his eye caught the shiny sousaphones and he charged toward them. His handler, Christopher Getman ’64, yanked on the leash, flipping Dan onto his back. The bulldog quickly recovered and resumed walking across the Green with a lick of his lips.
Zeke Miller, Paul Needham and Ilana Seager contributed reporting.