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2009 Remarks at Morning Prayers

Cambridge, Mass.

Time seems out of joint. Here we are, assembled to greet the new year, but perhaps feeling a little as if we had been woken up too early. Sand still in our shoes, pine needles in our hair, jetlagged from all too hastily completed summer travel. Labor Day not a pleasant memory but an anticipation. And the light seems off — not yet the flat slanted sun that heralds fall but still the glow of summer.

But we are back. Back with a new calendar. We are hardly the first Harvard citizens to find ourselves facing such change. Harvard’s calendar has shifted frequently and dramatically over its almost 375-year history. In fact, the calendar we just abandoned was instituted only 31 years ago. Before 1978, classes began a week later in the fall than they have since, and the year ended in mid-June. In the early 19th century, Commencement took place in August; for two decades at mid-century it was in late July; thenceforward, it occurred in varying weeks of June.

Harvard has embraced a dizzying variety of calendars in its three and three-quarter centuries, and has adapted to such unimaginable oppressions as a school year that lasted almost the whole summer long. And at least once a quite dramatic shift was imposed from outside — when in 1752 the British Empire at last decided to adopt the Gregorian calendar. That year, Wednesday, September 2 was followed by Thursday, September 14. Time was truly out of joint.

A range of considerations — weather, politics, wartime exigencies — led our forebears to decide to relate to the cycle of seasons in changing ways. Some of these influences we can only guess at; the historical record simply doesn’t explain.

But we have made our own decision for change deliberately. A University-wide committee called for a shared calendar in a 2004 report by invoking a new era “when excellence in education and scholarship increasingly depends on learning that extends across traditional organizational boundaries.” As we leave this chapel and walk into the late summer light, we should remember we have chosen a common calendar for the common good. We have decided for a single calendar for one university. We begin this year not on the schedule of the Business School or the Law School or the Ed School or the FAS — or wherever it is we may find ourselves — but as Harvard. Let us in the year and years to come think and act on all that means and all that makes possible. Let us remember it is not just a new arrangement of days but a new configuration of opportunities — for new ways of learning and discovering and identifying ourselves as part of an enhanced community. We are now, to borrow the phrase from Massachusetts Bay founder John Winthrop that I quoted in my installation address, “knit together in this work as one.” Time may after all not be out of joint, for it has joined Harvard together at last.

– Drew Gilpin Faust