Princeton University's Commencement festivities are the highpoint of the academic calendar: a time to reflect on the past year and a celebration of the accomplishments of the graduating class. It is a time of year when alumni return to campus en masse to reunite with classmates and to reminisce about their student days.
Commencement festivities, traditionally held at the end of May or beginning of June, are preceded by class reunions. Activities include workshops, lectures, talent shows, dinners, plays, concerts, barbecues, fundraising banquets, basketball games, golf tournaments, and a regatta. The centerpiece of reunions is the annual P-rade (held the Saturday before commencement) in which each class marches through campus in a colorful demonstration of pride and high spirits.
On Sunday the focus shifts to the graduating class, beginning with the Baccalaureate service, one of Princeton University's oldest traditions. This is an occasion for seniors to reflect upon their moral and spiritual purposes, as well as to address the concerns and events of their time. In 1760 President Samuel Davies delivered of the earliest recorded Baccalaureate addresses in the prayer hall in Nassau Hall. His speech entitled “Religion and Public Spirit” encouraged the students to “Live not for yourself but the Publick [sic]. Be the Servants of the Church; the Servants of your Country; the Servants of all.”
Today an inter-faith ceremony is held in the University Chapel and includes an academic procession, readings, prayers, and hymns. Traditionally, the University president has delivered the Baccalaureate address, but since 1972, a panel of alumni and faculty has selected a speaker to address the graduating class.
Following the Baccalaureate service, the University president hosts a garden party, and in the evening, there is a Senior Class Step-Sing in front of Blair Arch. At this informal event, which has endured for more than a century, seniors give voice to songs that reflect their Princeton experience and identity.
Monday is Class Day, an opportunity for seniors to stage their own graduation exercises, which they do on Cannon Green. A formal Class Day was held as early as 1856, and in 1898 it was described as “a day over which the Graduating Class has full charge and which we run to suit ourselves, in our characteristic way.” Although seniors no longer smoke long white clay pipes before smashing them again the cannon, Class Day still features speeches, including remarks by the University president, the recitation of a class history, the presentation of awards, and the planting of commemorative ivy at the base of Nassau Hall. According to tradition, “as the ivy grows, so will the class flourish.”
Recent Class Day speakers have included comedian Jerry Seinfeld and former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, who in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, warned seniors that “peace and prosperity are not cost-free commodities.” Class Day prizes include the Class of 1901 Medal, given to the senior who, in the judgment of his or her peers, has done the most for Princeton University, and the Harold Willis Dodds Achievement Award, presented to the senior who best embodies the qualities of Princeton's 15th president.
Other elements of contemporary Class Day exercises include the presentation of a symbolic key to the campus by the University president, the presentation of a class gift by the seniors, and the signing of “Old Nassau.” (“Old Nassau” has been Princeton University's alma mater since 1859. Its words were written that year by Harlan Page Peck of the Class of 1862 and published in the Nassau Literary Magazine. A member of the faculty, Karl A. Langlotz, wrote the music shortly afterwards.) Class Day is rounded out by a luncheon for seniors and their parents in the vicinity of Cannon Green and, in the evening, by the senior prom in Jadwin Gym.
Senior class jackets, popularly known as “beer jackets,” are a common sight on Class Day. This article of clothing traces its origins to 1912 when a group of students decided to wear blue denim overalls and jackets to prevent beer from spotting their clothes. The following year, the Class of 1913 followed suit, but chose to wear white instead of blue. After the First World War costumes were embellished with humorous logos, including jabs at Prohibition. Although overalls were abandoned following the Second World War, beer jackets have remained an integral part of Commencement activities.
Commencement itself is held on Tuesday in front of Nassau Hall, which has served as the site of this event (weather permitting) since 1922. Princeton University's first commencement was held in 1748 in President Aaron Burr's Newark, New Jersey meeting-house. Six undergraduate degrees were awarded on that occasion. After the University, then known as the College of New Jersey, moved to Princeton in 1756, commencements were held in Nassau Hall. In 1764 they were moved to the First Presbyterian Church, where they remained until the completion of Alexander Hall in 1892. It is interesting to note that prior to 1844, commencements were held in the fall, not the spring.
In addition to the conferral of earned and honorary degrees, the presentation of awards, and remarks by the University president, Commencement features the Latin salutatory and valedictory orations. Dating from 1748, the privilege of delivering the Latin salutatory is the oldest honor conferred at Commencement. The faculty grants this honor to one of the highest ranking candidates for a bachelor's degree. The first salutatorian, Daniel Thane, is reported to have “performed in good Latin from his Memory in a handsome oratorical Manner in the Space of half an Hour.” Today's orations are considerable shorter and seasoned with humor. Since most of the graduating class is unfamiliar with Latin, a printed copy of the oration is given to the graduating class with footnotes indicating how they should respond at various points.
The first valedictorian oration to be delivered by a member of the graduating class dates from 1760 and, like its Latin counterpart, is an honor conferred by the faculty on one of the highest ranking candidates for a bachelor's degree. Valedictories are typically filled with words of inspiration and wisdom, but few can claim the audience enjoyed by Ashbel Green, a future president of Princeton University. In 1783 the Continental Congress was meeting in Nassau Hall, and its members decided to adjourn in order to attend Commencement. George Washington was present, and, as Green would later write, he afterwards, “took me by the hand, walked with me a short time, flattered me a little, and desired me to present his best respects to my classmates, and his best wishes for their success in life.”
Commencement ends with the singing of “Old Nassau,” and seniors disperse through the FitzRandolph Gates, marking the end of an important chapter in their lives and the beginning of many others.
Board of Trustees Minutes and Records, 1746-Present
Commencement Records, 1748-1990s
The Daily Princetonian (Student newspaper)
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series, c. 1850-1996
Historical Subject Files Collection, 1746-2005
Leitch, Alexander. A Princeton Companion. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1978). Also available online.
Princeton Alumni Weekly (Summer Issue)
Princeton Alumni Weekly Photograph Collection, c. 1968-c. 1991
Princetoniana Committee Web site: Campus Traditions, History, and Lore
Rosalba Varallo (2003)
Tuesday, 24-Apr-2012 14:08:23 EDT