May 22, 2011
by President Catharine Bond Hill
Welcome to Vassar’s 147th Commencement.
It is wonderful to see you all here today, and to celebrate with you the accomplishments of a remarkable class.
As many of you know, (some perhaps too well), Vassar is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year, 150 years since the Vassar Charter was issued on January 18th, 1861. This has been an occasion for us to look back at many aspects of the college’s history, so I thought today I would say just a few words about the history of Vassar commencements. That history is one more illustration of how Vassar has been both the product of and a contributor to the times in which it has existed.
The first students, all 353 of them, arrived on campus in the fall of 1865, and the first commencement was held two years later, in 1867. The event was announced by a small engraved card, simply stating, “Vassar College” “Commencement” “1867” “Present this card at the gate Lodge” “June 19th 10 O’Clock A.M.” which suggests that it was a kind of ticket to the event, although since only four students were graduating, the card must have been more of a formality than a guarantee of admission.
The lettering on the card varies wildly in ways that rival the work of any modern computer user playing with typefaces. The instructions and day and time are at the bottom in a fancy script; the “1867” centered low on the card is in the style we associate with the old-west, such as one might expect to see on a saloon sign; above that, “Commencement”, white against a dark storm-cloud, is in an elaborate old English gothic style, and at the top “Vassar College” is in an arc with the largest lettering, made up of gnarled tree roots, each complete with tufts of smaller roots. The seemingly unnecessary period at the end of “Vassar College” is, in fact, a bird’s nest, with a small flock of birds scattered above the nest. It is, frankly, a lettering one might expect to find on the announcement of commencement at Hogwarts, not Vassar, especially since the small flock of birds could easily be owls. The full effect of this card is surprisingly harmonious, and it is easy to look at it and be reminded that we’re at an institution that exhibits that same success in harmonizing diverse architectural styles, and an institution that encourages individuality in its students on their path through the curriculum toward a unified educational purpose and community.
The program for that first commencement lists the four students’ names under a Greek inscription that translates (thank you, Rachel Kitzinger) literally as “Let us run well the pre-established contest.” Of course, this determination to meet the challenges of the future applied as much to the fledgling college itself, as to its four first graduates.
The ceremony consisted of having each student making a presentation, presumably based on their studies. Maria Loraine Dickinson delivered the “Oratorio Salutatoria” (in Latin) and an address titled “Character and Influence of Socrates”, Helen Douglas Woodward read a poem, “Divinity of Color”, Elizabeth Louise Geiger’s title was “Le Genie”, in French, and Harriette Anna Warner delivered the valedictory, “The True Test”.
There was no question but that from its very beginning, Vassar was an institution dedicated to providing and celebrating serious education.
The following year, there were 25 graduates, already too many to give every student a role, but nine of them spoke or performed musically, including an address in German. In 1869, 14 of the 34 graduates were on the program.
The addresses of those early commencements spanned the curriculum, including one on “The Theory of Evolution” in 1872. That year was the first that paired two speakers speaking from different points of view on a single issue. The address titled “This Age Specially Irreverent” was followed by “This Age Specially Reverent”.
Subsequent years saw pairings such as: “The Sciences, Superior to the Fine Arts in their Influence on Progress” followed, as you might have already guessed, by “The Fine Arts, Superior to the Sciences in their Influence on Progress.” This staged conflict between science and art was immediately reconciled by an address titled “The Aesthetics of Astronomy”.
Beginning in 1877, the pairing was listed more explicitly as a debate, with speakers on the affirmative and negative. Questions included: "Is Reform Possible Without Revolution?" and in 1879 just over a decade from the end of the Civil War: “Should the Northern or the Southern Colonists of this Country Command Greater Respect?” (Although the class of 36 graduates did include one from Alabama, the speakers were, in fact, from New York and New Jersey.)
By 1887 the debate format was dropped, and gradually, the number of student participants dwindled from that high of 14 to as few as 5, and through the first decade of the 1900s, the format of the program was consistently that of student presentations, with only an occasional role listed for the president, although he evidently had one. In 1886, the program included an address by Vassar’s President-Elect Kendrick followed by what was listed as “Response” by President Raymond. One assumes (or at least, fervently hopes) this was not a debate format.
The practice of having students present essays ended in 1915, largely at the insistence of the students. There are signs of dissatisfaction 20 years earlier in a petition signed by the six students chosen to speak. They wrote, “After careful consideration, the Commencement speakers of the class of ’95 petition the Faculty that, beginning with the present Senior Class, the Commencement speakers of every year be released from the final examinations of their second Senior semester.” A rather extreme compensation, it seems to me. There follows earnestly presented justifications, including that “The benefit to be derived from these examinations does not seem to us to be proportionate to the loss of time and strength which under the circumstances are necessarily involved.”
In December of 1900, there was a petition that claims to have been unanimously passed by all four classes, asking that student presentations be replaced by “a brief address by the President of the College or other man of note…”. In addition to claiming the essays were unrepresentative and burdensome, they wrote: “the exercises as held now are tedious both to the guests and Members of the College on account of their great length, and the speeches are immature and of little intrinsic interest, appealing only to personal friends of the speakers.”
Evidently that plea was not only rejected, but rejected so decisively that after another five years, in 1905, the students’ petition was back to requesting easing the burden by allowing students who speak to drop one course, and that the semester-long intense supervision of the English department be replaced by a requirement that speakers “submit their subjects to the president and … read their essays in final form before a committee of the faculty which shall refuse to allow any essay to be read at commencement if it contains anything discreditable to the college.”
That same petition lists, but does not recommend, alternative commencement formats, including: “Address by the president” (which the petitioners wisely reject, saying” “This the committee thinks undesirable because of the pressure of work on the president at commencement time.”) Another rejected alternative was “Address by a stranger”.
A minority report attached to that petition actually does recommend eliminating the student essays in favor of “a slight extension of the speech given by the president” together with “a slight increase in the ceremony of commencement.” but they don’t bother to submit a detailed plan” due to what they acknowledged was “the smallness of the minority.”
But despite that and additional later petitions, the practice of student essays continued for another 10 years finally to disappear in 1915 when, for the first time, there was an outside speaker (a “stranger” as it were), Alexander Meiklejohn, President of Amherst College. Perhaps early signs of an uneasy relationship between Yale and Vassar could be foreseen in a report that year in the Poughkeepsie Star that the Amherst president was a last minute replacement for the Yale President, who had cancelled.
1915 was also the year Henry Noble MacCracken became president of Vassar, and he adopted the model of having the president be the commencement speaker, doing so 23 times in his 32 years as president. The less-frequent outside speakers were typically prominent academic, religious or government figures, including, Franklin Roosevelt in 1931 when he was Governor of New York and a Vassar trustee.
MacCracken’s presidency covered the period of both world wars. In 1918, having already published a full schedule of 14 commencement-related events over four days (which by this time included a Baccalaureate Service and Reunion), there was an announcement that began: “That this Commencement is to be essentially a War Time Commencement, has been decided by Vassar College, president, faculty and students. The usual festivities have been given up, families and friends are not being urged to attend…”. Only seven events were held over two days, including, of course, Commencement. Alumnae only from the reunion classes were encouraged to attend and a symposium was organized where “twenty or more” were asked, the announcement said, “to tell in five minute speeches of the part they are taking in our Country’s winning of the war.”
During the Second World War, Vassar arranged for students to complete their degrees in less than four years, with December commencements in 1944 and 45, and April as well as June or July commencements in each of 1944 through 1947, making the claim on your program that this is Vassar’s 147th commencement open to some interpretation.
Following the war and in response to the demand created by returning servicemen, Vassar admitted men as non-residential students, even though the Vassar charter did not allow it to grant degrees to men. Vassar’s commencement program of 1948 lists "Requirements completed for the diploma of The University of the State of New York" followed by one name - William J. McCord – and, yes, he married a Vassar graduate.
I’m going to fast-forward a bit to one commencement that more or less established the event we have today – pausing briefly to note that the 1950 commencement was the first to be held in this outdoor theater, having moved from the chapel to accommodate a larger audience.
The commencement I want to single out took place in 1970. Vassar had begun admitting men in the fall of 1969, including transfer students, 10 of whom became the first men to receive Vassar degrees. This was also a time of great change in the country, with student activism responsible for much of that change. The speaker was Gloria Steinem, social, political and feminist activist, speaking on “Living the Revolution”. The ceremony was not on the surface radically different from immediately preceding commencements. As the New York Times reported, “Some of the feelings about the war and the state of the nation were respectfully muted as were the mini dress of Vassar’s commencement speaker and the tie-dyed jeans of some of the 10 male senior co-eds beneath their academic robes. Unmistakably noticeable were the peace symbols and the armbands [...]” Twenty students abstained from participation as a political statement, but the class voted against disruptions. The Times’ report noted “the student-influenced tone of the exercises” including that for the first time, there were student speakers, which, of course was not completely accurate, but it was the first time in decades. But the Times quite perceptively observed that the choice of speaker was “tradition-shattering.”
And it was. Those two shifts to greater student participation and a wider field for the selection of speakers continue to today. Since 1970, no longer are speakers predominately male and exclusively academic, political and religious leaders. There have also been speakers from the entertainment world, writers, media personalities, a cartoonist, scientists, humanitarians, and yes, journalists and reporters.
What has never changed about commencement, however, is the awarding of the degrees – the ONLY immutable feature in all 147 (or whatever) ceremonies. Perhaps the New York Times in 1970 was only looking at the window dressing in noting that the event was more “student-influenced.” The event has always been, as it is today, entirely student-influenced. It’s about the 660 of you who are joining Maria Loraine Dickinson, Elizabeth Louise Geiger, Harriette Anna Warner and Helen Douglas Woodward, as Vassar graduates.