Inside Rensselaer
Volume 6, No. 10, May 25, 2012

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:

Notable Moments in Commencement History

* Top (l-r): Current and outgoing Grand Marshals along with other "R" club members lead the Commencement processional to the '86 Field in 1924; full view of graduates and guests seated on chairs and bleachers on the west end of '86 Field in 1948. Middle (l-r): Commencement speaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau and President George Low '48 dressed in academic robes at the 1977 Commencement; Ivar Giaever '64 as he delivers the 1974 Commencement address; Commencement speaker Hillary Clinton and President Shirley Ann Jackson pose in academic regalia at the 2005 Commencement. Bottom (l-r): Parade of class banners on the '86 Field during the 1924 Commencement ceremony; President George Low '48 and Walter Cronkite in academic regalia in 1976.

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, 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.

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).

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 6, Number 10, May 25, 2012
©2012 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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