Notable Moments in Commencement History
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.
In 1942, a handful of women were the first to enroll in degree-granting programs at Rensselaer. The first two women to receive their degrees, Lois Graham and Mary Ellen Rathbun Kolb, did so in 1946. More than 400 women will graduate from Rensselaer this year.
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 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).