The Commencement Ceremony

Washington University in St. Louis and other American universities, public and private, follow the pattern of degree granting developed at the University of Paris, founded about 1100.

In the early days of the University of Paris,


the discipline and education of the students fell under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Paris, who claimed supervision of curriculum and degree-granting. However, the Bishop faced opposition from the teaching masters, who felt that they were the proper judges of the students’ qualifications. The masters demanded the right to grant the degree. By 1200, the Bishop and the teaching masters had reached a compromise: the masters judged the merits of the students and then recommended them to the Bishop, who conferred the degree.

The contemporary Commencement ceremony

Chancellor Wrighton addressing graduates

is the successor to this medieval compromise. The faculty sits on the platform in its role as teacher and examiner. Its leaders, the deans, present the qualified candidates to the chancellor. Acting upon the recommendation of the faculty, the chancellor, as executive officer of the Board of Trustees, formally confers the appropriate degree.

A Celebrated Tradition

Commencement program from 1962

Trace the history of Commencement at Washington University in St. Louis from the first ceremony in 1862.

Washington University in St. Louis was founded in 1853 under the name Eliot Seminary. It was located in downtown St. Louis for its first 50 years until, in 1894, the university purchased ground for a new site on the edge of the city. Frederick Law Olmsted developed the site plan, and the architecture firm of Cope and Stewardson designed buildings.

In 1900, construction began on the first five buildings of a plan based on the medieval courtyards of Oxford and Cambridge Colleges. The first Gothic buildings – Brookings Hall, Ridgley Hall, Cupples Hall I and Busch Hall – form the Brookings Quadrangle, the site of the university Commencement ceremony each spring.

A more comprehensive history of WashU Commencement is also housed in the University Archives on the Library website.