Commencement speakers are a long-standing tradition at graduation ceremonies. It’s unclear how the trend began. Though Harvard’s first graduation in 1642 had one—Massachusetts governor John Winthrop—UR didn’t have anything called a “commencement address” until 1985. There were always speakers at graduation, but the type of speaker differed year to year.
In the earliest years of the University, graduating students spoke at their commencement, orating on topics like philosophy, history, and politics. Simon Tuska, Rochester’s first Jewish student and first student to publish a book, gave an oration in 1856 titled “Ο Κοσμοπολίτς.” (It was delivered in Greek.) Other examples of orations given by graduates include Thaddeus Hanford’s “The Significance of the Alaska Purchase” in 1870, Albert Winfield Gilman’s “Rights of Minorities” in 1870, and Jesse Whipple Buell’s “What Shall Be Done with Turkey?” in 1874. There are records of women delivering orations in 1913 and 1914. In 1914, Marjorie G. Hatch spoke about “The Impressionist School of French Art,” and Julia L. Sauer’s speech was “Mormonism as a National Problem.”
Graduations at this time also heard addresses by the president or chancellor. Chancellor Ira Harris spoke at Rochester’s first graduation in 1851. He noted the significance of Rochester’s first graduating class, saying: “The morning of your life has dawned in a glorious day; you occupy a splendid pre-eminence indeed. I had rather commence my career of influence and responsibility and duty this year—at this middle point of this 19th century, than in any other year in the world’s calendar, the world ever saw. I had rather commence that career here in America, where the magnificent temple of liberty has been reared upon foundations laid so deep and so broad, and where her bulwarks have been made so strong, than in any other country upon which the sun ever shone. I had rather start out upon that career here in the State of New York than in any other state—and here in Western New York, and here in this young and enterprising city of Rochester, rather than any other section of the State. I had rather be a graduate of Rochester University than any other college in the state. I had rather be a member of her first graduating class than any other that is to succeed it.”
In the early 20th century, the tradition of having student orations at graduation dwindled. Outside speakers were invited to address the graduates instead, and this custom later turned into giving the speakers honorary degrees. This became a controversial practice when students and faculty widely opposed granting an honorary degree to the 1966 graduation speaker, at-the-time former Vice President Richard Nixon. It became national news when petitions were organized against honoring Nixon, on the grounds that he “opposed academic freedom,” as was written in the Chicago Tribune. In the end, Nixon spoke, but did not receive an honorary degree—he refused to accept it.
The University of Rochester has had several other prominent politicians as speakers at graduation. In 1900, then-Governor of New York Theodore Roosevelt spoke. Winston Churchill addressed the graduating class by live radio broadcast in 1941, speaking about the necessity for Anglo-American Unity. In 1994, the President of Pakistan Farooq Ahmad khan Leghari, whose son was graduating, received an honorary degree.
In addition to politicians, the University has chosen to honor people with a wide range of backgrounds, with several notable figures in the 1980s. I. M. Pei, the architect of Wilson Commons, who also famously designed the pyramid outside the Louvre museum in Paris, received an honorary degree in 1982. The archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, received an honorary doctorate of divinity in 1986. Also in 1986, the University granted an honorary degree to Garth Fagan, the Tony-award winning choreographer.
In the last few years, the University has chosen commencement speakers who seem to have a relevant connection to UR, whether as alumni or as noteworthy members of the Rochester community. There have been several speakers from Rochester businesses, including the CEOs of Xerox, Anne Mulcahy and Ursula Burns, in 2008 and 2011, respectively. The CEO of Wegmans, Danny Wegman, spoke in 2010. There have been more politicians, such as our Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, in 2009. Last year, the commencement speaker was Erica Fee ‘99, founding producer and board president of the first Niagara Rochester Fringe Festival.
This year’s commencement speaker is the Hon. Jimmie Reyna. He is a circuit judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, and is notable for being the first Latino to be appointed to the Federal Circuit. In keeping with recent trends, Reyna has strong ties to the University of Rochester. He is an alumni and a member of the Class of 1975, as is his wife, Dolores Ramirez Reyna. They married during their freshman spring semester. One of their sons, Justin, also graduated from the University of Rochester in 1999.
Perhaps a student in the crowd for the 2017 commencement will be back to address a graduating class some years down the line.