The history of commencement

1978grad
Daily Californian Archives/File

Commencement is approaching, and as UC Berkeley graduates have been doing for more than 100 years, thousands of people will soon fill Memorial Stadium and various other venues to mark the completion of their degrees. The Daily Californian took a look back in our archives to see how commencement has been celebrated over the last century.

In 1914, seniors attended separate men’s and women’s banquets. The men’s event was held at a log cabin by Strawberry Creek, “a far more cozy place than the austere Mining Building and a far more romantic setting than an Oakland inn or San Francisco cafe,” according to a Daily Cal article from the time. The event featured “pool, smokes and music” and a 50-cent deposit secured a spot at the meal.

The campus held the women’s banquet on the same night, and the event was to “be in every respect a fitting close for the four year associations of campus life.” The banquet was held at the Twentieth Century Club, a club for women that had been founded 10 years prior.

Twenty-five years later, in 1939, then-president Robert Gordon Sproul told more than 3,800 graduates that “you who are sitting here before me today have better opportunities than any other group of young people in the world.” A senior named Donald Thomas Campbell received the “University’s gold medal for the most distinguished member of the graduating class” after earning straight As (except for one B) for two years.

By 1961, the university’s 98th commencement ceremony awarded degrees to 5,699 graduates. Then-president Clark Kerr and Gov. Edmund Brown, father of current Gov. Jerry Brown, were among the officials that addressed the graduating class. Class president George Link delivered the class gift, a check for more than $900 to the campus “to be used in the name of President Emeritus Robert Gordon Sproul for a ‘worthwhile cause.’” The first senior gift was given in 1874, when students raised $48.10. Today, the Senior Gift Campaign is hoping to donate $100,000 to the campus, a little bit less than 64 percent of which had been raised as of early May.

Unhappy with the Boalt Hall Law School’s failure to hire women and minorities to fill five vacant faculty positions, law school graduates wore armbands in protest during their 1978 graduation ceremony. Members of the Coalition for a Diversified Faculty had previously held an all-day strike and teach-in and marched to the law school dean’s office in their effort for the hiring of more women and minorities.

When the coalition first started taking action, there were two minorities and three women on Boalt’s 42-member faculty. Phillip Johnson, then acting law school dean, told the Daily Cal, “You try to assess candidates as scholars and reach a considered, academic judgement, not a political decision. Nothing the students have done has led me to believe that their intentions were academic.”

Decades later, commencement ceremonies still are not without controversy. After comedian Bill Maher was selected to deliver the December 2014 commencement address, students protested the choice because of controversial comments Maher had said about religion. Despite an online petition with more than 6,000 signatures calling on the campus to stop his speech, Maher still addressed the graduates.

In the 1995 graduation issue of the Daily Cal, the newspaper solicited farewells and advice from professors and other local personalities. Political science professor Bruce Cain offered this wisdom to graduating seniors:

“Make tons of money and send it back to Cal.”

Contact Mitchell Handler at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mitchellhandler.