Commencement Traditions: Past and Present

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Brown’s Commencement Weekend has evolved considerably since the first ceremony Sept. 7, 1769, when seven graduates received their degrees in the Baptist Church in Warren, R.I.

Until 1853, Commencement was considered a public holiday and was attended by much of the Providence community. But it wasn’t all fun and games – in the 1700s, seniors also had to pay a commencement fee to the president of the University, according to Todd Andrews, vice president for Alumni Relations.

Commencement Weekend continues to evolve today. There have been several major changes to the Commencement schedule in recent years, due mostly to the compression of the weekend’s events to three days from four.

In 2003, an extensive review of Commencement Weekend by faculty and administrators determined that although “the weekend was great,” the “significant downtime on Sunday” was making the event too expensive for families, said Russell Carey, vice president and secretary of the University.

“We felt we could do what we wanted to do effectively in three days,” Carey said.

Administrators decided to keep the three-day schedule for this year, though they have made a few adjustments. Last year’s Commencement “got good feedback from families (and) department chairs” in addition to positive reviews from alums and seniors, Carey said.

“We saw an increase of 51 percent of the alumni participating,” Andrews said. “We expect that to increase” even further this year, he said.

Smaller changes to Commencement Weekend include making lectures and forums back-to-back on Saturday, which allows more speakers to come and talk, and giving staff the day off on Memorial Day. Commencement will be held on Sunday.

The largest changes to Commencement Weekend this year include the addition of a Brown co-sponsored WaterFire and a new approach to the College Ceremony.

“Traditionally, a part of Commencement was in the Meeting House” of the First Baptist Church of America, Carey said. “Now, part will be outside, on the lawn (of the Meeting House) and part on the Green.” Because of strict Rhode Island fire regulations, the church was unable to hold the unusually large graduating class, Carey added.

Additionally, the two senior orations will now be held on the Green, instead of in Meeting House, so that more people can see them in person.

Some members of the Brown community have voiced concerns that the compression of Commencement Weekend would lead to the loss of beloved traditions.

“The only event that’s gone away starting this year is the Pops concert,” Carey said. Due to scheduling changes and issues with funding, artists and venue, the University decided to withdraw its support for the concert.

“Based on feedback from alumni, we found that the Pops concert was not what they wanted to do on the night before Commencement,” Andrews added.

But some disagreed. “Many people will miss that,” Charlie Meister ’81 wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

Rather than canceling events, administrators have drawn up a schedule that includes more overlap between events, such as the Baccalaureate service and alumni Field Day both being held on Saturday afternoon.

“That represents a choice for some alumni,” Carey said. “But they’re designed for different audiences.”

No matter how much Commencement Weekend has changed this year, there are some things that will stay the same, including the procession through the Van Wickle Gates and the Campus Dance. Commencement still represents a time where current students and alums can share their experiences and seniors can look forward to the rest of their lives.

“It’s exciting seeing people come back – there’s a lot of enthusiasm and enjoyment at Brown – and I think the schedule change will only increase that,” Carey said.

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