The Traditions of Commencement

Duke University traces its origin to 1838 when Brown’s Schoolhouse, a one-room log subscription school, expanded to Union Institute upon the uniting of Methodist and Quaker families. Commencement exercises date from 1852 when action of the North Carolina General Assembly authorized the institution to grant degrees. Throughout the years graduation exercises have varied in scope, sometimes offering as much as a week of celebration to the graduates, their families and citizens of rural Randolph County, North Carolina, the site of the predecessor institutions to Duke University. Notable ceremonies in the nineteenth century included those of 1859 when President Braxton Craven presented diplomas reflecting a name change to Trinity College, of 1877 when the first earned M.A. degrees were awarded, and of 1878 when three sisters, Mary, Persis, and Theresa Giles earned degrees, becoming the first women graduates of the College.

The leadership of President John F. Crowell, the donation of land by Julian S. Carr, and the financial assistance of Washington Duke made possible the relocation of Trinity College to Durham in 1892. Within a decade, Trinity College established a reputation for excellence. Graduation ceremonies became more formal under the direction of a College Marshal. Caps and gowns appeared, and after 1902, students received Latin honors in recognition of academic achievement. With appropriate ceremony, the college paid homage to Washington Duke, who had died in 1905, with the unveiling of his statue at the commencement of 1908.

From 1910 to 1924, President William Preston Few presided over the development of a particularly strong liberal arts college, and from 1924 until his death in 1940, he directed the successful transition to a complex research university. In December 1924, long-range planning and a lifetime of family philanthropy culminated in the public announcement of a grand design to aid higher education, hospitals, orphanages, and the Methodist Church in North and South Carolina. Acknowledging the unique opportunity for a new identity presented by acceptance of the terms of the indenture of the Duke Endowment, the Board of Trustees of Trinity College enthusiastically agreed to organize a new institution around Trinity College. The enlarged institution was to be known as Duke University in honor of Washington Duke, benefactor and father of Mary, James Buchanan, and Benjamin Newton, all friends of the college in their own way.

Based upon the solid foundation of Trinity College, the University grew spectacularly. The curriculum expanded and succeeding graduation programs noted new degrees: B.D. and M.Ed. in 1927, Ph.D. in 1928, and LL.B. in 1929. M.D. joined the list in 1932, and B.S. in Engineering in 1933, B.S. in Nursing in 1936, and Master of Forestry in 1939. In 1972 the degree of Master of Business Administration, the last curriculum recommended by James B. Duke, joined the list of degrees awarded by Duke University.

The location of the graduation exercises themselves reflects the changing nature of the University. First held in Craven Memorial Auditorium on East Campus, they were moved to West Campus in 1931 and held successively in Page Auditorium and in the outdoor and indoor stadiums. Special ceremonies at commencement have included the laying of the cornerstone of the Gothic campus in 1928, the first use of the Chapel and the inaugural carillon and organ recitals in 1932, and the unveiling of the statue of James B. Duke in 1935. The exigencies of World War II required the awarding of degrees during the year in special ceremonies in a variety of locations.

President Terry Sanford pursued new ways to continue a single university-wide convocation of undergraduate, graduate and professional school students which would still maintain traditional exercises. In a unique format, baccalaureate services are offered three times, and the commencement exercises have now returned to an outdoor setting, first to Wallace Wade Stadium in 1974, to the East Campus quadrangle in 1980, and in 1984 back to the Stadium.

Due to ongoing construction at Wallace Wade Stadium, the 2015 commencement ceremony was held at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C.