As Rensselaer has evolved, so have its Commencement ceremonies. The Institute Archivists have provided the following interesting facts:
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, familiar…no one attempting to be elegant or flowery in his discourse.”
For over 90 years, Rensselaer required each undergraduate student to submit a thesis 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.
The Troy Savings Bank Music Hall hosted 37 consecutive Commencements, from 1876 to 1912.
Commencement was not held on campus until 1913 when the ’87 Gym provided a large enough space to accommodate the ceremony. John Sterling Deans, chief engineer for the Phoenix Bridge Co., delivered the Commencement address on June 18, 1913.
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.
The first honorary degree (Doctor of Engineering) was awarded at Commencement in 1916 to Robert W. Hunt, a longtime trustee (the Hunt Dormitory is named for him).
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.
There was no Commencement speaker in 1968. Nelson Rockefeller canceled due to the assassination of Robert Kennedy on June 5, two days before Commencement.
In 1976, Walter Cronkite, the American broadcast journalist best known as anchorman for the CBS Evening News for 19 years, delivered the Commencement address. Cronkite, who died in July 2009, received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.
The Rensselaer flag combines historic and contemporary elements to represent the Institute’s origins and the present. The design is based on the coat of arms of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, the great-great-grandfather of Rensselaer’s founder, Stephen Van Rensselaer. The Rensselaer flag, created in conjunction with the Class of 1994 gift, was flown for the first time in May 1994, when it was raised in front of the Houston Field House for the 188th Commencement exercises.
One of Rensselaer’s best-known songs, “Here’s to Old RPI,” first appeared in the 1906 yearbook, the Transit. It was composed by Edmund Fales and is sung today as Rensselaer’s alma mater.
The Rensselaer mace was created in 1999. The mace is carried at the head of all academic processions and is prominently displayed during academic ceremonies. The modern mace grew out of an ancient tradition to use it to preserve order. It can be carried before a high functionary as a symbol of authority. Recalling our founder’s Dutch ancestry, the tulip-shaped top of the Rensselaer mace is made of silver with the Rensselaer seal in the middle of the tulip bloom, which is also a symbol of prosperity. The shaft of the Rensselaer mace is made of ebony. This mace was made in the workshop of Rebecca Smith and Anton Pruden in Ditchling, a small village in East Sussex, England.
In 2002, Rensselaer planned to hold Commencement on the Harkness Field; however, a late May snowfall of 2.2 inches forced the planned outdoor Commencement inside to the Houston Field House. The ceremony was held outdoors on the Harkness Field since 2003, until the move to the East Campus Athletic Village, where it has been held since 2010.