As Rensselaer has evolved, so have its Commencement ceremonies. According to the Institute Archives and Special Collections, here are a couple of interesting facts:
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.”
Rensselaer required each undergraduate student to submit a thesis, for more than 90 years, in order to receive a degree. The first known “graduating theses” were submitted by members of the Class of 1854. This requirement continued well into the 20th century, but by the mid-1940s only a few departments continued to require the undergraduate theses.
Commencement was not held on campus until 1913 when the ’87 Gym provided a large enough space to accommodate the ceremony. The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall hosted 37 consecutive commencements, from 1876-1912.
There were no Commencements in 1852 and 1919. The degree program changed from one year to three years in 1850, so there was no Class of 1852. The Class of 1919 graduated in December 1918 due to an acceleration of the program during World War I.
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 the Institute’s origins and the present. The design is based on the coat of arms of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, the great-great grandfather of Rensselaer’s founder, Stephen Van Rensselaer. The Rensselaer flag, created in conjunction with the Class of 1994 gift, was flown for the first time in May 1994, when it was raised in front of the Houston Field House for the 188th Commencement exercises.
“Here’s to Old RPI,” one of Rensselaer’s best-known songs, first appeared in the 1906 yearbook, the Transit. It was composed by Edmund Fales and is sung today as Rensselaer’s alma mater.
The Rensselaer mace was created in 1999. The mace is carried at the head of all academic processions and is prominently displayed during academic ceremonies. The modern mace grew out of an ancient tradition to use it to preserve order. It can be carried before a high functionary as a symbol of authority.
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