A Step into the Unknown Commencement at Tufts University

Founding - 1899

COMMENCEMENT, 1856

The first Tufts Commencement was held on the second Wednesday in July, 1856, although no students had yet met the requirements for graduation. Tufts College held a public dinner, and the audience listened to speeches by Thomas Jefferson Sawyer and Elmer Hewitt Capen.

In 1857, Tufts College conferred degrees on graduating students for the first time. Continuing the tradition established a year earlier, the ceremony was held on the second Wednesday in July. The graduating students were each assigned a part in the ceremony, and delivered a speech in accordance with their class rank. From 1857 to 1878, each graduate delivered a speech, beginning with the Salutary and culminating in the Valedictory Oration. Until 1868, the Salutary and the Valedictory Address were delivered in Latin, and Latin was used to announce speakers, their topics, and even to bestow degrees. By 1878, however, the number of graduates was too high for each student to speak, as the ceremony would have lasted all day. Instead, the best students competed for a chance to be one of six student speakers at commencement.

In 1861, faculty began electing marshals to participate in the ceremonies. In 1870, students were granted the privilege of electing the class marshals. At these early commencements, students dressed in formal clothes, but it was not until 1882 that students wore the now traditional cap and gown. Faculty did not begin wearing robes and hoods until 1902.

From 1857 to 1879, graduates were listed in alphabetical order on the commencement program. In 1879, the administration decided to list students in order of scholarship, or ranking, to honor students for the academic achievements. Eventually, a compromise was reached, and now students are listed alphabetically by degree, with their academic honors noted after their names.

Beginning with the first official commencement and lasting until 1875, the Mathetican Society, Tufts' first student organization, organized an oratory program to follow the commencement ceremonies. In 1875, the Association of Alumni took over the job, and presently, each college holds a luncheon for the graduates.

In 1893, Henrietta Noble Brown became the first female to present an oration at commencement, and in 1896 Mary A. Livermore became the first female recipient of an honorary degree.

– Sauer, Anne, Branco, Jessica, Bennett, John, and Crowley, Zachary. Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History. Digital Collections and Archives.
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