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Title:Commencement Committee records
Call Number:A54

Historical Note

In 1902, 21 students graduated from the Evening Law Institute of the Boston YMCA. This marked the first annual commencement ceremony of what is now Northeastern University. The school held its commencement ceremonies in a variety of locations in between 1902 and 1952, including Jordan Hall (now part of the New England Conservatory of Music), Boston Arena (now Northeastern University's Matthews Arena), Symphony Hall, New England Mutual Hall, and Alumni Auditorium (now Northeastern University's Blackman Auditorium). Between 1953 and 1995, commencement ceremonies were held at the Boston Garden. The Fleet Center has served as the host of Northeastern University's graduation since 1996. Due to Northeastern University's association with the YMCA, early commencements had a substantial religious component. Most notably, until 1943 a Baccalaureate Sermon was held the Sunday before the commencement ceremony in various Boston churches, usually the Trinity Church or the New Old South Church in Copley Square. In 1941, Northeastern University President Carl Stephens Ell, delivered the first presidential address, known as the Presidential Charge. During the 1976 commencement the first official student oration was given; however, student speakers had sporadically been part of earlier ceremonies.

In response to an increasing number of graduates, beginning in 1967 a fall commencement ceremony was added in September, following the summer quarter. In 1972, President Asa S. Knowles announced there would be two commencement ceremonies, because in the previous year almost 4,000 students participated in a four-and-one-half hour ceremony. The morning ceremony was for of the full-time undergraduate students from Northeastern University's eight basic colleges, while the afternoon recognized part-time undergraduates and graduate students. In 1977, the School of Law decided to hold its own commencement ceremony in May to accommodate growth in its student body.

Guest speakers and the awarding of honorary degrees have been a constant tradition at the Northeastern University commencement ceremony. Josiah Quincy gave the commencement address at the first ceremony in 1902, and almost every ceremony since then has had a prominent guest speak. The major exception to this occurred in 1972-1977, when no speaker was invited. Guest speakers at Northeastern University have included John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1956, Barbara Bush in 1991, Bill Clinton in 1993, and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1998. The Northeastern University Law School Commencement also hosted a guest speaker its first year, District Court Judge Hugh H. Bownes of New Hampshire. The fall commencement's first guest speaker was former Boston Bruin Bobby Orr in 1984.

An Honorary Degree was first granted by Northeastern University in 1921. Beginning in 1931, eight to ten honorary degrees have been granted each year. The Law School granted honorary degrees in its first ceremony in 1971. In 1988, the Law School became the first American university to grant South African Nelson Mandela an honorary degree. While still in prison, Mandela was granted an absentee Doctorate of Laws for his struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Honorary degrees were also awarded during the fall commencement ceremonies beginning in 1984. See for a list of honorary degree recipients and commencement speakers.

Between 1919 and 1921, Northeastern University formed five evening school divisions in Bridgeport, New Haven, Providence, Springfield, and Worcester. The Worcester division was the first to hold its own commencement ceremony in 1920, and the last was the Springfield division in 1951. The divisions all held their own ceremonies in June of each year. In 1924, the Bridgeport division became the Bridgeport Engineering Institute (now part of Fairfield University). The New Haven Division separated in 1926 and is now the University of New Haven. The Providence division became Roger Williams University during the 1940s. The Worcester Division became Worcester Junior College, which closed its doors in 1989. In 1951, the Springfield Division was the last to separate its ties with Northeastern University, becoming Western New England College.
1898The Evening Law Institute is founded
1902The Evening Law Institute holds its first commencement ceremony for 21 students
1904The General Court of the Commonwealth grants the Evening Law Institute the power to grant the bachelor of laws degree
1911The School of Commerce and Finance is authorized to grant the bachelor's and master's degree in Commercial Science
1912Commencement is held in Ford Hall
1915Commencement is moved to Jacob P. Bates Hall
1916Northeastern College of the Boston YMCA is incorporated
1917Commencement moves to Jordan Hall
1920Massachusetts state legislature authorizes Northeastern College to grant bachelors degrees in civil, mechanical, chemical, and electrical engineering, in conjunction with the Co-op School of Engineering
1922Northeastern College renamed Northeastern University
1934Commencement is held in the Boston Arena
1935Northeastern University becomes independent from the Boston YMCA
1941President Ell gives the first Presidential Charge at the June commencement
1943The last commencement Baccalaureate Sermon is held
1953Commencement moves to the Boston Garden
1967Northeastern University holds its first fall commencement ceremony
1972Northeastern University begins morning and afternoon commencement ceremonies
1976The first official student oration is given at June's commencement
1977The School of Law holds its first separate commencement ceremony
1979The fall commencement moves to Symphony Hall, the first off-campus location for the ceremony
1984The fall ceremony grants honorary degrees and invites a guest speaker for the first time
1988The School of Law becomes the first American university to honor South African Nelson Mandela
1996The Commencement ceremony moves to the Fleet Center

Feldscher, Karen. Northeastern University-The Curry Years: Smaller but Better, 1989-1996 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000). (LD4011.N22 F45 2000)

Frederick, Antoinette. Northeastern University-An Emerging Giant: 1959-1975 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1982). (LD4011.N22 F7x)

Frederick, Antoinette. Northeastern University-Coming of Age: The Ryder Years, 1975-1989 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995). (LD4011.N22 F732 1995)

Marston, Everett. The Origin and Development of Northeastern University, 1898-1960 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1961). (LD4011.N22 M3)