Commencement Traditions

Commencement weekend, with its formal Baccalaureate services and graduation ceremony, follows traditions as ancient and universal as those from the first medieval universities and as unique as Duke University itself. Graduation is our most significant convocation where undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, alumni, friends, and distinguished guests gather in celebration and to honor the purpose of the institution. The graduation ceremony is significant as part of Duke's history as well as because it is part of an ancient tradition. The diploma, academic regalia with distinctive identifying colors and symbols, and the University's Mace and Chain of Office, pictured below, reflect traditions centuries old.

Many commencement weekend traditions here date from the early decades of the origin of the university in 1838 as Union Institute. Current traditions firmly established by the name change to Trinity College in 1859 include the recognition of graduation with distinction, the noting of special honors and prizes, the awarding of honorary degrees, the selection of student speakers, the distribution of Bibles to undergraduates, and the hosting of a gala outdoor reception in honor of graduates and their families. One confusing item, however, might be that Commencement 2003, will represent the 151st official exercise. This particular accounting derives from the fact that in 1852 the legislature of North Carolina officially granted the institution authority to award "such degrees and marks of honor as are given by colleges and universities generally." (Laws of North Carolina, 1852-53, Chapter 38, p. 161.)  Before this, the school could award only a certificate of course completion.

While full of tradition in one sense, commencement observances reflect changing times as well. In the 19th century, the exercises sometimes lasted a week. Today official ceremonies occur over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday only. Through the years in Durham, the location of graduation has changed from Epworth Inn and Craven Memorial Hall on the Trinity College campus to Page Auditorium, the Chapel, Cameron Indoor Stadium, the main quadrangle of East Campus, and Wallace Wade Stadium on the Duke University Campus. During World War II, degrees were awarded in official ceremonies, complete with a speaker, as often as six times a year. Innovation is evident as well in the scheduling of multiple Baccalaureate services. Since 1975, students have requested three identical services in order to accommodate the number of students and parents wishing to participate in this impressive ceremony in Duke Chapel.

Two modern adaptations of ancient practices concern the diploma itself and the wearing of an official Duke academic robe. Today's diplomas are no longer literally sheepskin. Quality paper of high rag content is far more lasting than animal skin or vellum, which wrinkles considerably thus distorting the text. Since 1969, a registered dye of official Duke blue has been used for the doctoral robes of the university. This distinctive robe with its soft black tam instead of a mortarboard instantly identifies the wearer as a recipient of Duke's most prestigious degree.

Through the years important milestones have been part of commencement activities. In the 19th century the first earned M.A. degrees were awarded in 1877; and Mary, Persis, and Theresa Giles became the first women graduates with B.A. degrees in 1878. The first Ph.D. degrees, both in Zoology, were awarded in 1928 to Frederick Holl and Dean Rumbold. Campus events as part of commencement activities have included the unveiling of the statues of Washington Duke in 1908 and James B. Duke in 1935, and the laying of the cornerstone of Southgate dormitory in 1921 and Alumni Memorial Gym in 1922. As a teenager James B. Duke's daughter Doris assisted in the laying of the cornerstone of West Campus in 1928. The inaugural carillon and organ recitals were part of the festivities when the Chapel was used for the first time at commencement in 1932.

Despite the pomp and pageantry and historical milestones, the conferring of degrees, both earned and honorary, represents the high point of any ceremony. With four different names, two locations and expanding curricula and sites, historical references for Duke University can be confusing. However, the honoring of students upon completion of a prescribed program of studies has been part of each academic year in the history of the institution.


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© 1990. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002. Updated July 2003.
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.