“Cornell Rewind” is a series of columns in the Cornell Chronicle to celebrate the university’s sesquicentennial through December 2015. This column will explore the little-known legends and lore, the mythos and memories that devise Cornell’s history.
As Cornell celebrates its sesquicentennial year, some Commencement customs have not changed while other traditions adapt to the age.
The first students entered Cornell in fall 1868, and the university held its first commencement in 1869. Some of the first students had transferred from other schools and eight of them were eligible to graduate. The first ceremony was held on Thursday, July 1, at the downtown Ithaca library that Ezra Cornell built. Earlier that week, along with other events, the cornerstone of McGraw Hall was laid, and a tenth bell, a gift of Mrs. Andrew Dickson White, was added to the University Chimes.
The first “through-class” year was the Class of 1872. After years of complaining about crowding and heat in “Library Hall,” the ceremony moved to the newly built Armory (site of the current Engineering Quad) in 1883. In 1912, Commencement exercises were moved to the “natural amphitheatre” on the slope west of McGraw Hall.
While Bailey Hall had served as a venue from 1921-31, it lacked enough seating. Generally, Barton Hall served as the Commencement venue from 1947 to 1974, and since then, every Commencement has taken place at Schoellkopf Field.
From the outset, Cornell’s president has delivered the Commencement address. For the 1905 graduation, President Jacob Gould Schurman was in Europe and Thomas F. (“TeeFee”) Crane, acting president, gave the Commencement speech.
Students first began wearing caps and gowns in 1895 and, in 1898, a Faculty Committee on Academic Dress agreed that the faculty and the Board of Trustees should also wear caps and gowns for the ceremony.
Beyond receiving a diploma, Commencement included events such as the Senior Ball, held at the Old Armory; a Senior Concert at the Lyceum Theatre downtown; “Class Day,” with student speakers, singing, class poems and class essays; planting of the “class ivy;” and other events.
Initially, Commencements were held at the end of June. After World War II, Commencements also included ROTC commissioning. For many years, Reunion was held concurrently; by 1913 Reunion moved to the weekend just prior to the Monday Commencement. In 1965, Reunion began following Commencement.
Beginning in the 19th century, an outside speaker would preach a Baccalaureate Sermon. In 1984, because the senior class wanted to invite outside speakers as was common at other universities, the seniors started a tradition of bringing Convocation speakers. Past Convocations speakers have included Astronaut Mae Jemison, M.D., ’81 (1994); former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1986); newscaster Keith Olbermann ’79 (1998); former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno ’60 (2001); President Bill Clinton (2004); newscaster Soledad O’Brien (2007); and poet Maya Angelou (2008).