Rensselaer’s first Commencement was April 26, 1826, in the Old Bank Place in Troy. Asa Fitch, a member of the Class of 1827, recorded the event in his diary. The graduates delivered demonstration lectures on scientific subjects, probably the first of their kind in American education, in language described by Fitch as “plain, familiar... no one attempting to be elegant |or flowery in his discourse.”
Commencement was not held on campus until 1913 when the ’87 Gym provided a large enough space to accommodate the ceremony. According to Rensselaer historian Samuel Rezneck, “For want of a suitable auditorium until 1913, the exercises took place in various halls in the city, after 1876 in the Music Hall... In 1913 Rensselaer acquired a gymnasium, which provided facilities for its Commencement exercises.”
There were no Commencements in 1852 and 1919. The degree program changed from one year to three years in 1850 and therefore there was no class of 1852. The Class of 1919 graduated in December 1918 due to an acceleration of the program during WWI.
The first honorary degree (Doctor of Engineering) was awarded at Commencement in 1916 to Robert W. Hunt, a longtime trustee (Hunt Dormitory is named for him).
Beginning in 1950, Commencements were held at the Houston Field House. In 1999, due to the ever-increasing number of graduates, the ceremony was held at the Pepsi Arena (now Times Union Center) in downtown Albany, where it was held for the next few years. In 2002, Rensselaer planned to hold Commencement on Harkness Field; however, a late May snowfall of 2.2 inches forces the planned outdoor Commencement inside to the Houston Field House. The ceremony has been held outdoors on Harkness Field since 2003.
There was no Commencement speaker in 1968. Nelson Rockefeller cancelled due to the assassination of Robert Kennedy on June 5, two days before Commencement.
The Rensselaer flag combines historic and contemporary elements to represent Rensselaer’s origins and the present. The design is based on the coat of arms of Kilaen Van Rensselaer, the great-great grandfather of the Institute’s founder.
One of Rensselaer’s best-known songs, “Here’s to Old RPI,” first appeared in the 1906 yearbook, the Transit. It was composed by Edmund Fales and is sung today as Rensselaer’s alma mater.
Created in 1999, the Rensselaer mace is carried at the head of all academic processions. Recalling our founder’s Dutch history, the tulip-shaped top of the mace is made of silver with the Rensselaer seal in the middle of the tulip bloom.
More than 300 volunteers work to put together Rensselaer’s 2009 Commencement. There are 10,000 seats on the field, and 15,000 bottles of water to quench the thirst of guests and participants.
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