University President Teresa Sullivan will be delivering the commencement address at Final Exercises May 19 and 20 following a University tradition for the outgoing president to deliver the address. Sullivan will be , a School of Law graduate, former faculty member and current dean of Harvard. The past five University presidents have also partaken in this tradition.
This year, the Valedictory Exercises will take place May 18, followed by the Final Exercises. In an email to The Cavalier Daily, Pam Higgins, executive director of major events, said the Valedictory Exercises is more of a ceremony with speakers while Final Exercises is organized by the Office of Major Event and consists of the formal graduation process.
Erik Roberts, a fourth-year College student and chair of the Fourth Year Trustees Graduation Committee, said the committee is in charge of organizing the graduation weekend, including the class awards and speaker for the Valedictory Exercises.
“We plan the class party, we administer the class awards, which we just announced this week, we find the valediction speaker each year,” Roberts said. “We also did the very first December graduation ceremony this year — we held dinner for all the December graduates which has never been done before.”
Valedictory Exercises also include the presentation of University awards and the class gift. During Final Exercises, graduating students walk down the Lawn in academic attire and receive their degrees.
“They… hear remarks from the President, the Rector of the Board of Visitors, and a representative from the Alumni Association,” Higgins said. “Following the keynote address, the President, along with the deans of the various schools, will officially confer degrees on the degree candidates.”
When it is not a year in which the president is leaving their position, the University's Committee on Public Occasions creates a list of possible speakers, from which one is chosen to deliver the commencement address.
“The Committee, comprised of students, faculty, and staff from across the University, is responsible for developing lists of potential speakers for both Fall Convocation and Final Exercises,” Higgins said. “Once finalized, the list is presented to the President who officially selects the speaker for the ceremony.”
The speaker for the Final Exercises is usually a member of the University faculty. The valediction speaker, however, tends to be someone from outside of the University. In 2017, the commencement address was given by Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education. The at the Valedictory Exercises that year was Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia and University parent. In 2016 the Valedictory speaker was University alumna and “Grey’s Anatomy” actress, Sarah Drew.
Roberts said the keynote speaker at Valedictory Exercises will be announced in the upcoming weeks.
For much of the University’s history, Final Exercises occurred in one day with the past five outgoing presidents delivering one address. In the past few years, the graduating class of the University has been large enough for Final Exercises to take place over the course of both Saturday and Sunday. Roberts’ said Sullivan’s speech will be unique because she will be the first president to deliver the commencement address on both days.
According to Higgins, Sullivan’s commencement address will be her last official major address to students before stepping down as president. The speech will also be significant for graduating students as it marks their official graduation, Roberts said.
“This is the moment where someone says, ‘Congratulations, you are all graduates, I am someone who has legitimacy telling you this.’ It is a momentous occasion,” Roberts said. “It’s a pretty big deal and cool that [Sullivan] is doing it.”