Commencement, Guido Calabresi, Law Schools, Martha Minow, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Even Harvard and Yale Couldn’t Pull Off Flawless Commencements

Here are a couple of things I learned last week:

1) Above the Law readers love commencement train wreck stories.
2) Emory Law students feel picked on.

Armed with this new information, I bring you stories of commencement ridiculousness at schools with student bodies mature enough to take a little scrutiny.

Graduation has come and gone at Yale Law School and Harvard Law School. And while most Yale and Harvard graduates have jobs lined up for this fall, the transition from student to graduate did not go as smoothly as possible. At one school, a Supreme Court justice essentially had to crash the ceremonies. At another school, it seems the smart people organizing the event were totally flummoxed by the naturally occurring phenomenon of rain.

You’d think that with 380-plus years of combined experience, these two law schools could figure out how to run a graduation ceremony. But apparently there’s no accounting for common sense….

Commencement Failure: New Haven Edition. Who Will Stop The Rain?

Apparently the big brains at Yale Law School had no plans for a downpour during commencement. Remember, this is Yale. Type “New Haven” into Google Earth when you have a chance. You’ll notice that Yale isn’t in the middle of a desert. It rains quite regularly in New England.

But apparently the administration was caught off guard. It seems that only former dean Guido Calabresi kept his head. From the Yale Law School website:

Sterling Professor Emeritus of Law Guido Calabresi ’58 was just minutes in to his commencement speech when the skies opened up, drenching students, family, and faculty members present in the Law School courtyard.

“I cannot have people suffer through this,” said Calabresi, a senior judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and the graduates’ special choice for commencement speaker. “I’m going to make a choice that says, ‘I love you,’ and I will not speak any longer today.”

It had remained dry until that point, after a few brief drizzles when the students processed in at noontime.

According to Yale graduates who were there, that only tells half the story. According to one tipster:

A downpour opened up in the courtyard during Guido Calabresi’s address, which only got started after long, drawn out speeches from two other professors. Guido mercifully cut his remarks short when students & guests were getting drenched (note, of course, that faculty were shielded under a tent up on stage).

Another YLS source added:

I was tracking when my graduation would be ruined on my iPhone. So were all the other students. The only people who didn’t know it was about to rain were the faculty. I guess weather reports don’t make it up the ivory tower.

Are you suggesting that law school professors have lost touch with real-world concerns? At Yale? I’m shocked, shocked I say!

Not knowing that it was about to rain is one thing. Not knowing what to do once it started raining is damn near unforgivable. From an eyewitness:

At first, Dean Post panicked, said hastily, “Your degrees are conferred!” (which isn’t even accurate, since the faculty doesn’t vote on degrees till June 1, but whatever), and had no plans to let students “walk” across any stage. An organic protest – from students and their families – broke out. Eventually, students “walked” in the auditorium, where there wasn’t enough seating for families, and the professional photographer tasked with the ever-important handshake-with-the-dean photos was AWOL. Suffice it to say, there was no contingency plan in place for what might happen if rain started *during* the ceremony (as opposed to before, in which case events would’ve been held in the university’s gym).

Graduates are pissed off, to say the least, because they think it’s another painful example of how the school cares not at all about the students, relative to its faculty (which was allowed to ramble on despite the ominous weather). Lots of people are claiming they won’t donate money to the school, period… or until Dean Post is no longer dean.

You don’t have to wonder what this might have looked like — Yale was kind of enough to tape the whole debacle and put it up on the web. Click here, then fast forward until you can see rain.

To his credit, Dean Robert Post later sent around an email apologizing to the students and their families (reprinted in full below). Don’t worry, Yale, I’m sure next year will be better — I hear the 188th try is a charm.

Commencement Failure: Cambridge Edition. Uninvited.

Does Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg need to be portrayed by Tiny Fey before Harvard lets her speak at graduation? This year, the Harvard Law School Class Day speaker was Alec Baldwin. That’s a pretty cool get. And apparently, The Corporation got to Baldwin and made him say this, according to the Harvard Crimson:

“If I had to do it all over again, I would do it differently,” Baldwin said. “I believe I would trade what I have for what you’ll have come tomorrow afternoon.”

Baldwin said that, as a child, he always dreamed of becoming a lawyer.

“I wanted to be President of the United States, so I needed to get my hands on a law degree. Nearly every day since then, I wondered what would [have happened] if I had the patience, skill, or good fortune.”

The difference between fighting for social change as a wealthy actor recognized around the world versus fighting for social change as an unknown lawyer with a mountain of educational debt is the difference between banging a young Kim Basinger or just masturbating to one of her movies.

But I digress. The Class Day speakers are always fun (my year, it was Bono). For the big day when the parents are there, you’d expect HLS to pull in a legal titan of the day. I’m sure that when people found out that Justice Ginsburg would be getting an honorary HLS degree — she could have gotten a real one, had she not transferred to Columbia — they expected to hear a few words from perhaps the last true liberal on the bench.

There was just one problem. Nobody invited Ginsburg to speak.

Think about that for a second. You’ve got a sitting Supreme Court Justice at your law school graduation, and nobody asks her to say a few words to the kids? Placido Domingo was there and he sang to Ginsburg, but the HLS brain trust didn’t ask her to speak! There’s ego, there’s hubris, and then there’s whatever the hell is in the water up in Cambridge. I’ve seen military juntas with more institutional humility than Mother Harvard.

Luckily, Ginsburg is old, liberal, and long since past the age where she gives a f**k. Ginsburg decided to grab the mic and share some unprepared remarks:

Dean Minow spoke briefly and gave a typically awkward, tone-deaf speech that included a (no joke) three-minute long summary of a Star Trek episode. The JD class speaker gave a brief, excellent speech decrying the “cult of public interest,” and the disregard shown by the Law School for the majority of its students who will be entering the private sector. The LLM class speaker then made an address.

At the conclusion of the LLM speaker’s remarks, the SJD and LLM candidates’ names were called and they walked across the platform and received their diplomas. Members of section 1 of the JD class were, at this point, lined up under a tent beside the platform.

Then, suddenly, there was some confused shuffling on stage and it was announced that RBG was joining us. Justice Ginsburg spoke briefly and contemporaneously. She recounted the well-known story of her first year at HLS, during which the Dean of the Law School invited her to dinner along with the other six female members of the class and asked them what reason they had to be at the Law School, taking up a spot that could have gone to a man. She also took care to mention that she had invited herself.

Not asking Ginsburg to speak when she’s already there is like hosting Saturday Night Live, seeing Alec Baldwin in the audience, and not doing a bit about him.

In any event, there you have it. Two of the oldest and most distinguished law schools in the country, and neither of them could get through an entire commencement ceremony without tripping over themselves. That’s got to make everybody feel good about themselves.

229 Degree Candidates Honored Before Downpour Cuts Commencement Ceremonies Short [Yale Law School]
Alec Baldwin Speaks to HLS Grads [Harvard Crimson]


Dear Graduates,

I write to extend my congratulations again on your graduation from Yale Law School. You have accomplished great things during your stay here. We have been fortunate indeed to have each of you as members of our community. Your presence has enriched and strengthened us.

It was with great pleasure that I met some of your family members and friends, many of whom are also alumni of our Law School, during our Commencement celebrations. They are important members of our Yale Law family and I ask that you extend my thanks and sincere appreciation to them for their support, patience, and flexibility as we braved the elements and then regrouped within the Law School building to conclude our celebration in the auditorium. I deeply apologize for the inconvenience that this caused for you, your friends, and family in attendance.

Professors Drew Days and Owen Fiss marked an important milestone in their careers with all of us during our Commencement ceremony. Their heartfelt words were an inspiration. Our beloved Judge Guido Calabresi – Guido – who graciously cut short his commencement speech when the skies opened up — wished to share those full remarks, and we hope to include a video of his address to you on our web site as soon as possible.

As you prepare for the post-Yale world, please know that you will always be welcome “home” at YLS. I look forward to hearing about your future achievements, and hope to see you all again soon.

Best regards,
Robert Post

(hidden for your protection)

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