It’s Commencement week at Rutgers, and that means some of the University’s oldest traditions are on display at the various ceremonies taking place across the campuses this week. The epicenter of much of the tradition is the Old Queens Bell, which sits atop Old Queens and was a gift from the schools namesake, Revolutionary War veteran Col. Henry Rutgers, in 1826. The bell originally was used to signal the beginning and ending of classes, but now it is only rung on special occasions, such as commencement.
University commencement has undergone many changes in venue and format over the past two centuries. Here are some of the highlights of two centuries of graduations at Rutgers:
- In 1774, the graduating class of Queen’s College consisted of one student, Matthew Leydt.
- Before 1913, commencement took place in the Ballantine Gymnasium, which later burned to the ground. A portion still survives in the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum.
- In the 1920s, commencement exercises shifted to the Second Reformed Church, then located at George and Albany streets.
- In the 1930s, commencement moved to the College Avenue Gym, constructed in 1932 to replace the Ballantine Gym.
- In 1948, commencement was to take place on the Voorhees Mall, but inclement weather forced a last-minute relocation to the College Avenue Gym. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower received an honorary degree and delivered an impromptu, six-minute address. The 1948 university commencement also brought together the Newark and New Brunswick campuses for the first time. Camden would join later.
- In 1949, commencement moved from Voorhees Mall to Rutgers Stadium to accommodate 1,666 degree candidates — mostly World War II veterans — and 10,000 guests.
- In 1967, the national anthem was sung for the first time at the ceremony.
- In 1968, a gonfalonier appeared with the university gonfalon followed by gonfalons for each academic unit. The gonfalon is a banner displaying Rutgers’ coat of arms that is borne at the head of all university processions by a senior faculty member known as the gonfalonier. The coat of arms is quartered to represent in armorial bearings the founding and growth of the university. The upper right quarter bears the arms of the House of Orange and recognizes the Dutch settlers who founded Queen’s College under the aegis of the Dutch Reformed Church. The upper left quarter contains the armorial devices of English King George III and Queen Charlotte. The lower right quarter contains the Great Seal of New Jersey. The lower left bears the coat of arms of Col. Henry Rutgers.
- In 1972, the ceremony returned to Voorhees Mall. The university’s schools and colleges adopted the practice of holding their own convocation ceremonies. Advanced degrees were conferred on 1,800 men and women in the morning and 4,000 baccalaureate degrees were conferred at individual convocations.
- In 2004, the ceremony once again returned to Voorhees Mall, after 24 years at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, more commonly known as the RAC, on the Livingston campus.
- At Commencement exercises, tradition led undergraduates to break clay pipes over the Class of 1877 Cannon monument in front of Old Queens, symbolizing the breaking of ties with the college, and leaving behind the good times of one's undergraduate years. This symbolic gesture dates back to when pipe-smoking was fashionable among undergraduates, and many college memories were of evenings of pipe smoking and revelry with friends.
- During commencement, graduating seniors walked in academic procession under the Class of 1902 Memorial Gateway (erected in 1904) on Hamilton Street leading to the Voorhees Mall where the ceremonies were held for Rutgers College. Traditionally, students are warned to avoid walking beneath the gate before commencement over a superstition that one who does will not graduate.
In the early 1900s, it was customary on college campuses for the rising classes to impose 'friendly' restrictions on the new first-year class, and the New Jersey College for Women was no exception to this tradition. The NJC Class of 1922 deemed that first-year students were not permitted to wear anything red and were prohibited from walking on the path from George Street to College Hall for the duration of their first year. This path is known as Sacred Path.
The NJC community decided that at the end of spring semester, they would gather for a "moving up" of the classes ceremony, in which first-year students would be escorted down the Sacred Path by upper-class women, thereby officially becoming sophomores.
Today, Rutgers University honors the Sacred Path tradition with a program in the spring that begins at Voorhees Chapel. The program includes a ceremony of the moving-up of the Douglass classes, a tribute to all service groups, and culminates with a fire pit lit parade to College Hall. Along the way, the participants make a wish on a pinecone and toss into the flames of the fire pits. They then move down the Sacred Path to a reception in the Douglass Campus Center in which the participants receive a charm corresponding to their class year. At the end of four years, they will have four charms to commemorate their years at Rutgers. In addition, each class year is represented by a certain color. Alumnae receive an ivy leaf charm. Dressed in black, seniors receive the mortarboard. In red, juniors receive a key. Wearing pink, the sophomores receive a clock. Clothed in white, the first years receive a lantern.
The most recent celebration of Sacred Path was held on Sunday, May 2, 2010. Over 700 students, alumnae, family, and friends filled the chapel to honor Douglass tradition and to collect their charms.