Why call it “Commencement”?

For the University of Texas, it’s the most important event of the year, the signature public affirmation of the University’s academic enterprise. Greater than any other college tradition, spring commencement is more than simply a rite. As is so often said about Texas, commencement is a state of mind. For two days in May, it casts a wide spell and seems to have a hold on everyone.

Right: Steven Hardt, a 2007 communication graduate, arrives on the Main Mall with an orange Tower perched on his mortar board.

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Above: The Academic class of 1894.

First held in June, 1884, the University’s earliest graduation ceremonies were modest affairs, staged in the un-air conditioned Millett Opera House downtown. They were scheduled either in the morning or later in the evening to avoid the early summer heat. Gentlemen arrived in three-piece suits, Ascot ties, and bowlers, while the ladies sported colorful bustle dresses and fashionable bonnets. Graduates were identified by the black-tasseled mortar boards on their heads.

Along with the presentation of diplomas, the ceremony was augmented by a pair of speeches delivered by members of UT’s two literary societies, the Rusk and Athenaeum. In 1885, Thomas Watt Gregory’s (left, and later namesake for Gregory Gym) half hour address made quite an impression as he optimistically described the march of social and scientific progress through the nineteenth century. “His speech from the beginning to the close was a grand and masterly one,” reported the Austin Statesman, “eschewing from his discourse the tinseled vaporings which generally characterize commencement efforts.”

When the auditorium in the old Main Building was completed in 1890, commencement moved to campus, and over the next decade grew into a week long celebration. Parties, dances, picnics, luncheons, and, occasionally, a symbolic textbook burning in front of Old Main all preceded the diploma ceremony. The alumni association held its annual meeting at the same time, elected officers for the next year, and organized class reunions.

In 1901, the senior Academic students – what today might be considered arts and sciences – voted to wear traditional caps and gowns to commencement for the first time. The law students, though, had been left out of the discussion, and, unhappy that they weren’t consulted, refused to conform to the new dress code.  After UT President William Prather insisted that the law graduates wear some type of distinctive insignia, they opted to don light-colored suits with wild Texas sunflowers pinned to their lapels. Plentiful in the open fields around Austin, the sunflowers were at their peak in mid-June. A Daily Texan editor added some meaning to the choice: “As the sunflower always keeps its face to the sun, the lawyer turns to the light of justice.” A tradition was born. Today, UT law graduates still wear sunflowers.

 

Commencement moved outdoors in 1917. The state’s fire codes had recently been upgraded, and the auditorium was unexpectedly forced to close because of too few proper exits. Held on the warm and humid Tuesday morning of June 12th, just over 350 degree recipients – UT’s largest graduating class to date – gathered in front of the ivy-draped, Victorian Gothic old Main Building. The ceremony started bright and early at 8:30 a.m., before the Texas sun became unbearable.

Among the graduates were UT’s first nine recipients of the Bachelor of Business Administration degree. As with their law school counterparts, the business students decided to shun the cap and gown, and instead sported white linen suits with sweet peas as lapel flowers.

Above: 1937 Spring Commencement in Gregory Gym.

Over the next few decades, commencement roamed about the Forty Acres. It was held in the Texas Memorial Stadium in the 1920s, moved to Gregory Gym when that facility opened in 1930, and then returned to the front of the new Main Building and Tower in the late 1940s, when returning World War II veterans more than doubled UT’s enrollment in just a few months.

In 1995, UT President Bob Berdahl asked that the University-wide commencement ceremony be re-invented. While participation was still strong for the college and school events, attendance for the Main Mall graduation had suffered, in part, because the emphasis on hooding the Ph.D. candidates seemed to leave out the undergraduates. A separate ceremony was created for the Graduate School, and the University-wide event was refashioned to better include everyone, with more pomp and pageantry, and with the notable addition of fireworks. Within a few years, more than twenty thousand graduates and spectators annually converged on the South Mall.

Above left: The 1980 Spring Commencement.

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To the undergraduates, for whom their own commencement is often the first one to be witnessed, the modern ritual can pass as a blur of color, music, oratory, and pyrotechnics. The tops of mortar boards are decorated with UT icons, messages of future aspirations, and heartfelt thanks to parents. Deans brag with abandon about their schools and colleges. “If you have to go to a hospital,” chides the Dean of the School of Nursing, “you should hope that you’re being treated by a UT nurse!” The business school dean boasts, “Our degree programs are ranked in the top ten in the country!” All of it is loudly approved by the graduates. Throughout the night, the Main Building and Tower is bathed in a variety of special lighting effects until it bursts with color in the long-anticipated fireworks finale.

Much of the ceremony will seem deliberately out of touch with the twenty-first century, a purposeful nod to the medieval European ancestry of the modern university. Today’s caps and gowns are holdovers from the cappa clausa, the required academic dress centuries ago at Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge. The tassels hanging from mortar boards and stoes draped over gowns are different colors, set by an agreed-upon international standard, to designate various fields of study. White is used by liberal arts, scarlet for communication, green for geosciences, citron for social work. Faculty members, most of whom earned their Ph.D. degrees from other universities, don the academic garb of their Alma Maters.

College maces, symbols of authority that were first used in the thirteenth century graduation processions of Oxford and Cambridge, are still carried at UT commencement. For each school and college, a pair of faculty marshals with maces conveys a single-file line of graduates up to the Main Mall at the start of the ceremony. Made from oak and brass, most of the University’s maces were created in the 1960s, and each bears images and emblems connected with a particular college. A mortar and pestle sits atop the College of Pharmacy mace, teaching certificates adorn the one used by the College of Education, and Alec, patron saint of the Texas Engineers, proudly stands on the mace for the Cockrell School.

Prominently hanging above the entrance to the Main Building is a large color rendition of the University of Texas seal, itself a longstanding tradition, when medieval universities needed official seals in order to conduct legal affairs. (The seals of a dozen other universities are permanently displayed on the Main Building.) Its Latin motto, Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis, comes from an 1838 speech by Mirabeau Lamar, a president of the Republic of Texas, who declared that a “cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy.” The use of Latin is a reminder of when the language was studied and spoken by university students in the Middle Ages.

Why is graduation called “commencement?” The word reflects the meaning of the Latin inceptio – a “beginning” – and was the name given to the initiation ceremony for scholars in medieval Europe. The original college degree certified that the bearer could instruct others in a given academic discipline. As part of the graduation ritual, which usually included a feast given by the graduate as a thank you to his professors and friends, the newly-minted scholar delivered his first lecture as a legitimate teacher. Commencement, then, means “commencing to teach.”

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It’s a relatively straightforward task to describe the tangible features of the day: the colorful procession, the advice dispensed, and the cheers that accompany the fireworks launched from a bright orange Tower. But as mentioned before, commencement also casts a less definable spell. For the graduates, there is the excitement of a goal well-achieved, balanced with nostalgia as they become alumni. For the parents, it’s a joyous time with an undercurrent of relief. For the faculty and staff, the satisfaction of a job well-done, seen in the confident eyes of their former students who are about to go out into the world. All at once, it seems, youthful exuberance meets the sentiment of age.

And for everyone, surrounded by the symbols and traditions of ages past, there is a sense, if only fleeting, of sharing in the timeless succession of learning. From the ancient schools in China, India, and the Middle East, to the famed Library of Alexandria along the northern coast of Africa, to Plato’s Academy, and then on to the more modern progression of universities in Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge, across the Atlantic to Harvard, and finally, on to  Austin.

Perhaps the true meaning of commencement, so deeply rooted in history, is that it still carries with it an eternal promise of new beginnings.

Note: Some of the images from recent UT commencement ceremonies are courtesy of the UT Austin account on Flickr and were photographed by Marsha Miller.

Commencement 1912: No Style for a Texas Sundial

Above: A century ago, Spring Commencement was held on a June morning, on the northwest side of the old Main Building and protected from the early summer sun.

The University’s annual Spring Commencement draws tens of thousands to the Forty Acres. It’s a two-day extravaganza of school, college, and departmental ceremonies all over campus, culminating in a University-wide spectacle Saturday evening in front of the Tower. The deans brag about their schools and colleges, the University President congratulates both graduates and parents on their achievements, and fireworks are launched from the Tower to the delight of everyone.

Though not as grand in scale, the graduation schedule of 1912 was just as packed, and extended over four days in mid-June, starting with a Saturday all-University dance that began early, at 7:30 a.m, to take advantage of the relatively cool temperatures in the morning. A baccalaureate service was held Sunday, followed by Class Day ceremonies Monday morning, which featured the passing of gavels and other symbols of leadership on to next year’s senior class. The alumni association held their annual meeting and luncheon immediately afterward, and divided their ranks into three groups: the “Ancients” were those who had graduated among the University’s first 10 classes, 1884 – 1893; “Mediaevals” finished their degrees between 1894 and 1903; and “Old Timers” designated the rest. Each group had a special ribbon to wear for the week.

The alumni luncheon finished in time for attendees to stroll over to old Clark Field to watch the first-ever baseball game between the current Longhorn team and the alumni. UT grad Will Hogg, son of former Texas governor Jim Hogg (and for whom the Will C. Hogg Building is named), served as celebrity umpire. Coach Billy Disch arranged to borrow “baseball suits” from the local Austin Senators team so the alumni would have a uniform to wear. It didn’t help. Despite the stand-outs on the alumni roster, the Longhorns won the day.

But the day wasn’t yet finished. At 7:30 that evening, a crowd gathered on the campus for the popular student-alumni parade through downtown. Many in the group carried torches or vari-colored Chinese lanterns, and the parade included two brass bands and several floats. “After a thousand torch lights of red and green,” reported the Austin Daily Statesman, “the student body and the old time grads who are visiting, frisked around the campus and back again.” The procession ended on the northwest side of the old Main Building in front of a temporary wooden platform. There, graduating seniors put on vaudville acts, other students offered skits, and held yell leader Teddy Reese lead the group in some UT cheers and songs before the party ended late in the evening.

The official commencement ceremony, Tuesday morning at 10 a.m., was conducted at the same spot as the previous night’s gathering, in the shade behind Old Main. An elegant Final Ball that night at the Driskill Hotel concluded the week’s events.

Sprinkled in between the cracks of a hectic schedule were plenty of receptions and other parties, and the formal dedication of a gift to the University from the Academic Class of 1912: a sundial (photo at left). With a marble pillar and a brass plate, it was placed about 100 feet south of the Woman’s Building – the first co-ed residence hall – so that it would have been seen along today’s West Mall.

Unfortunately, the sundial’s style, usually a triangular piece that casts a shadow on to the plate, wasn’t made for Austin’s latitude. “The time of day could not be determined to the nearest hour,” moaned Harry Benedict, then Dean of the Academic Department, “and the time of night could not be determined at all.” This made the sundial’s inscription, “Ye Know Not The Hour,” both redundant and superfluous.

Even worse, within a year, the style was broken off and taken outright, an act that reduced the inscription to being downright hilarious, and prompted accusations from College Station that “Texas has no style.” Despite the heartfelt intentions from the Class of 1912, the poor sundial was quietly removed, and has long since been lost.