January/February 2022Vol. XXXIV No. 3

New Commencement Format for 2022

James Poterba

MIT’s student population has grown in recent decades, and with it, the number of graduates participating in Commencement has increased. In 2019, 3,556 students received degrees. That represented a 26 percent increase in 20 years; there were 2,828 graduates in 1999. Forty years earlier, in 1979, 2,605 degrees were awarded.

For Commencement ceremonies, bigger is not necessarily better. For students who participated in MIT’s 2019 commencement, the elapsed time from assembly until closing was 5½ hours. For faculty, the time commitment was 4½ hours. Although Killian Court was packed with more than 13,000 graduates and guests at the start of the ceremonies, most seats were empty by the three-hour mark. Participants voted with their feet and sent a clear message: graduates and guests thought that the ceremony was too long. Most of those who were fortunate enough to cross the stage early left well before dismissal. In addition to the Commencement marathon, the Investiture of Doctoral Hoods and Degree Conferral Ceremony on the previous day, for 536 graduates, was a 4½-hour commitment. Plans for increasing the number of graduates in future years portend even longer ceremonies ahead.

Motivated by concerns about length as well as the difficulties of adapting the single degree-granting ceremony model in the event of rain, in 2017 and 2018 the Commencement Committee, then chaired by Eric Grimson, began exploring alternatives.

Most of our peer institutions combine a shorter all-inclusive gathering that includes a charge to the graduates and address by a Commencement speaker with a collection of smaller events at which graduates individually receive their degrees. The Committee consulted with undergraduates and graduate students, faculty, alumni, and parents of recent graduates as it considered possible ways to adapt this framework to the MIT setting.

The Committee learned that several strong preferences needed to be incorporated in any reform: (i) all students place high value on a Commencement experience in Killian Court; (ii) there is strong support for including at least the current number of guests in the Commencement celebration; (iii) members of the undergraduate class prefer to graduate together, rather than in groups divided by School or department or residence; and (iv) advanced degree candidates appreciate the opportunity to participate in a smaller event, such as the doctoral ceremony in 2019. A new format was developed with those priorities in mind and was approved by Academic Council in 2019, although implementation was delayed by the onset of the pandemic. I am very grateful to the outstanding Institute Events team, including Ted Johnson, Rebecca Tyler, and the recently-retired Gayle Gallagher, who have played a central role in the last three years in developing the details of the new plan. We owe them a great collective thank-you!

Effective with the 2022 Commencement, MIT will shift from a single degree-granting ceremony to a more disaggregate structure that closely aligns with the practices of most other universities with similar numbers of graduates.

The new Commencement format has three central elements. First, there will be a OneMIT ceremony on Friday morning (May 27, 2022) in Killian Court for all graduates. The Commencement speaker will address this gathering, the president will deliver a charge to the graduates, and there will be the traditional turning of the class ring. Second, on Friday afternoon, all bachelor’s degree recipients will receive their degrees in a ceremony on the athletic fields. A large tent, capable of accommodating a crowd of close to 6,000 graduates and guests, will provide protection against inclement weather. Students who are receiving simultaneous bachelor’s and M.Eng. degrees will receive their degrees at this ceremony. Third, there will be School-hosted ceremonies on Thursday afternoon (May 26), or in some cases earlier in the week, for advanced degree recipients. This structure will provide flexibility to adapt programs from year to year. In 2022, for example, the College of Computing and the School of Engineering plan to hold a joint advanced-degree ceremony. MIT Sloan plans to host a number of ceremonies, so that graduates of specialized programs can participate in events tailored to their group. The times and locations of the ceremonies for advanced degree recipients will be announced soon. They will take place in a variety of venues, suited to the size of each group of graduates.

Faculty will play important, but different, roles in the OneMIT ceremony, the undergraduate degree-granting, and the School-level advanced degree gatherings. Some faculty may decide to participate in more than one of these ceremonies, and it should be possible for faculty members to play an active part in the Commencement celebrations with a time commitment that is no greater, and probably smaller, than in the past. Details regarding faculty roles in the OneMIT and undergraduate degree-granting ceremonies will be announced in the spring, and faculty will receive the usual email regarding regalia ordering and registration to participate. Schools will have significant discretion in designing their advanced degree ceremonies and the role that faculty will play in them.

The Commencement Committee has several roles in preparing for the 2022 Commencement. It will oversee the design of the OneMIT ceremony, which is likely to be patterned to a significant degree on the virtual ceremonies of 2020 and 2021. It will also work to coordinate the actions of different Schools, to make sure that the OneMIT and the undergraduate degree granting ceremonies link up appropriately, and to develop a schedule that minimizes conflicts to the greatest degree possible. Later this year, it will also collect feedback on the new model from both faculty members and graduates so that we can evaluate the 2022 experience and consider potential refinements in 2023 and beyond.

The Covid-19 pandemic not only delayed the rollout of the new Commencement model, it also necessitated a shift from in-person to online graduation ceremonies in both 2020 and 2021. In both years, President Reif committed to inviting the graduates to return to campus at a later date for an appropriate celebration. Institute Events is leading the planning for the May 28 in-person graduation celebration in partnership with the MIT Alumni Association, which is inviting the 2020 and 2021 alums to participate in various Tech Reunion activities throughout the weekend. Members of the faculty are welcome to join in all of the ceremonies occurring from Thursday, May 26 through Saturday, May 28. Further details will be available in the spring.

It is never easy to change a tradition, especially one that has been part of the Institute’s history for more than 150 years. Yet as circumstances change, we must be prepared to adapt. The members of the Commencement Committee are confident that the new format for our ceremony will continue to provide a vibrant opportunity for our faculty, staff, and guests to join with our graduates in celebrating their achievements, while remedying several shortcomings of our legacy approach that have become increasingly salient in recent years.