Commencement at the University of Delaware through the years

More than 150 commencement ceremonies have been held at the University of Delaware since its first students graduated in 1836. Over time, these ceremonies evolved from small, local celebrations to occasions of comparatively massive scale involving students from around the country and the world.

The University of Delaware traces its roots to a school founded by the distinguished Colonial scholar, The Reverend Dr. Francis Alison, in 1743, in New London, Pennsylvania. By 1765 the school had been moved to Newark where, in 1769, it received a charter as the Academy of Newark from Thomas and Richard Penn.

On February 5, 1833, the General Assembly of the State of Delaware passed an act establishing a perpetual charter for a college at Newark. Newark College opened as a degree–granting institution in 1834 and the Academy was merged with it. The institution was renamed Delaware College in 1843, and in 1921 an act of the Delaware General Assembly created the University of Delaware with two colleges – Delaware College and the Women’s College of Delaware.

A ceremony was held in 1835 to mark the end of the academic year, but no students received degrees at that time. The first Commencement where students received degrees was held on September 23, 1836, for five young men. Graduating classes remained small for several years and on occasion numbered only one or two students. No commencements were held in 1837 and 1850 because there were no students prepared to graduate. On four occasions, 1847, ’51, ’53, and ’71, only masters’s degrees were awarded. The College was closed in 1859 for financial reasons and the impending Civil War.

The Board of Trustees continued to meet and by means of the Morrill Land–Grant Act, the College reopened in 1870, graduating its first new class in 1873. In the years before 1873, there were sixteen years in which no degrees were awarded. Since that time, however, annual commencements have continued uninterrupted.


How the modern commencement came to be

The first significant universities, such as those founded in the early 13th century in Paris (awarding licenses in theology, philosophy, and logic) and Bologna (civil and canon law), were awash with standards for dress, language (Latin in every circumstance), and what the University of Paris called “the accustomed order in lectures and disputations.” That order included a 4 a.m. wake–up call, lectures at 5, Mass at 6, followed by “disputes,” lectures, “repetitions” of lectures, disputes, more repetitions, and a 9 p.m. bed call. The lectures themselves were also conducted according to fixed custom, in large halls with the professor enthroned front and center in a raised “magisterial chair.” Just below him sat the wealthier and nobler of students in chairs with armrests, while the hoi polloi were arrayed behind them on backless wood benches or on the floor and windowsills when bench space ran out. (At some universities, lecture hall windows were placed so the learned doctor could gaze upon a pastoral scene, and thus nourish his powers of memory.)

Commencement–or “inception,” as it was first called–was likewise a choreographed public occasion, beginning with the oral examination that led to a doctoral degree (the only degree offered, and which was required only for those who intended to become teachers themselves). These final exams set a committee of scholars behind a table to question the would–be doctor seated in a chair across the room, and were conducted before a public audience whose members were known to shout insults at the candidate if they found his responses wanting.

Safely past this challenge, soon–to–be doctors were paraded on horseback to the local cathedral (or church if no cathedral was local) led by trumpeters, mace–bearers, and “players on the fife.” A procession of faculty and students followed, each clad in the robe and colors appropriate to his academic station. In solemn ceremonies at the cathedral, the graduate was handed, in succession, his “license” to practice, an open book (symbolizing the need for continued learning), a closed book (learning did not come from reading alone), a suitable cap (red for law, black for theology, variants of blue for medicine), and a ring to be worn as a sign he had wed his discipline. And then, having been kissed on both cheeks by the senior scholar conferring the degree, the new doctor was escorted in a torchlight procession to a banquet hall, where all the party ate and drank late into the night at his considerable expense. Across Europe this general order of the day took on local colorings. Sweden added cannon fire to the proceedings. At Louvain, the candidates were carried by hand in an ornate chair. In Spain, the new graduate was presented with a sword and gold spurs in addition to the tchotchkes described above; in return he was obliged to furnish his friends with a bullfight in addition to the feast. In Vienna, the graduate had to spruce up on the eve of his ceremony, an act known as “the ordeal of the bath,” which was not a reflection of medieval views of bathing but a deliberate reference to the trials of a squire seeking knighthood, which began, mundanely, with a bath.

Over the next two centuries, universities changed, custom faded to routine, and the rituals that attended commencements were either dropped or adapted to suit non”medieval likings. In the American colonies, where Congregationalist sensibilities held sway, commencement rituals were seen to smack of popery, inappropriate pride, and rank European decadence. In 1701, Increase Mather tried, unsuccessfully, to convince Yale officials to do away with the ceremonies, arguing that they “proved very expensive & are occasion of much sin” (two complaints that persist); while Harvard, which was in fact Mather’s alma mater, did not regularly schedule commencement exercises until the 1760s. When American universities did hold such ceremonies in colonial times, they were generally private affairs for students and faculty, and often occurred–anti–climactically, one would suppose–in the September following completion of studies.

In the mid–18th century, however, one of those periodic fevers of cultural panic so well known to Americans seized the landed and monied classes, who wondered how, in a country with no fixed distinctions of rank, they could continue to preserve the privileges of class. University education was one answer–the earned degree distinguishing future leaders from future followers. And with that comforting thought, the need for a tradition of public commencement ceremonies–”attended by a vast concourse of the politest company,” as John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey (later, Princeton) noted—suddenly became apparent.