The clouds and light mist over Old Campus before Monday’s Commencement exercises gave way to sunshine, soul music and celebration.
University President Richard Levin, Yale College Dean Mary Miller and the deans of the graduate and professional school conferred a total of 3,243 degrees on the class of 2010 at the ceremony, in addition to nine honorary degrees given to renowned artists, scholars and politicians including soul singer Aretha Franklin, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk.
Nearly all of the 18,000 white chairs on Old Campus were filled as Miller took the stage first to confer diplomas on Yale College’s 1,279 graduating seniors. Following the cue Miller gave the class at Sunday’s Class Day — “When I say, ‘Confer upon them these degrees,’ I want you to explode,” she said — the students burst from their seats cheering and applauding when they heard those same words.
Yale Law School Dean Robert Post conferred 225 juris doctor degrees upon his students. Because the law students have yet to take their final examinations, their degrees — as well as 32 degrees for students in the School of Medicine’s physician’s assistant program — were provisional. Post emphasized the contingency of these diplomas in his pronouncement of the traditional conferment language, putting additional stress on the words “shall” and “will” to applause and laughter from the law students in the audience.
One by one, the other deans of Yale’s 12 graduate and professional schools took the stage to ask Levin to confer diplomas upon their candidates for graduation.
Regardless of their school affiliation, nearly all students came to Commencement in full “sartorial splendor,” as Class Day speaker Bill Clinton LAW ’73 had put it the day before. Clinton said the tradition of wearing outrageous hats to Class Day took him by surprise, and while Monday’s Commencement was more strictly business than Class Day, the fashion choices of some graduates would no doubt have surprised Clinton as well.
Students from the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies wore mortarboards bedecked with leaves and branches, while undergraduates chose insignias from their residential colleges — Stilesians stuck small fleurs de lis stickers to their caps, while Saybrugians hung bunches of plastic grapes from their hats. Jonathan Edwards College students waved small pennants and wore medals hung from ribbon in the college’s trademark shade of green. Some graduate and professional school students opted for more classic choices, such as the School of Medicine student who wrote “Love U Mom” on her cap.
Many in the audience were buzzing about whether honorary degree recipient Aretha Franklin would attend the ceremony — and, if she did, whether she would be wearing a hat like the now-infamous grey, bow-bedecked one she wore to President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony in January.
Franklin did attend the ceremony, and in a hat, no less. The Yale Concert Band played the opening bars of Franklin’s signature hit, “Respect,” as she walked to the podium to receive her honorary doctor of music degree. Franklin did not sing at Commencement, but her musical career was still the centerpiece of her citation: Levin made repeated reference to the tunes that made Franklin famous and called her “a natural woman” at one point in reference to her chart-topping 1967 single.
“We know royalty when we see it,” Levin said. “And you are the Queen of Soul.”
While Clinton did not attend Commencement, some of the messages from his address the day before, in which he urged Yale’s graduating seniors to erase inequality as private citizens working for the public good, echoed through the ceremony. Clinton’s 34-minute speech touched on many of the global issues on the agenda of the Clinton Foundation, of which Clinton is a director; global health, poverty, education and global warming were among them.
Several of this year’s honorary degree winners work in fields directly related to these issues. In his citations, Levin praised U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu for his contributions to the fight against global warming. Levin said the work of Michael Feinberg and David Levin ’92, both educators and founders of the Knowledge is Power Program network of charter schools, is made all the more potent by their commitment to their own principles.
“We know that you practice what you teach: Work hard. Be nice,” Levin said, quoting the school network’s slogan to laughter from the audience.
In a nod to Class Day, Miller introduced the winners of the several of the senior prizes announced the day before at the beginning of the Commencement ceremony, including the recipients of the Sudler, Snow and Chittenden prizes. (In a departure from the usual Class Day program, no mention was made Sunday of the six faculty members who won teaching prizes this year. Graduate School Dean Jon Butler, whose six-year term as dean comes to an end June 30, won the Harwood F. Byrnes/Richard B. Sewall Teaching Prize.)
This year’s Commencement was the last for Butler, as well as for Deputy Provost Charles “Chip” Long, who will retire from Yale in June after 44 years of service. Long served as chief marshal at Monday’s convocation, bearing the ceremonial University mace as he led the procession of graduates.
Correction: June 6, 2010
An earlier version of this article misreported when teaching prizes are usually awarded to faculty. It is at Class Day, not Commencement.