Convocation stresses substance over pomp and circumstance

University Communications

"Today you must face the fact that you are not educated people."

When Cyril Orvin Houle, Professor in Education, began his convocation address with these words to the Winter Quarter graduating class of 1948, he paid homage to the academic notion that one's education is never complete, and the University of Chicago tradition of educating its community through the graduation ceremony.

Since the University first celebrated its accomplishments under founding president William Rainey Harper in January 1893, 499 convocations have taken place. Though past speakers have ranged from Professor Janet Rowley and legendary physicist Robert A. Millikan, to President Bill Clinton and a student who made a hastily arranged address against the Vietnam War, convocations all share a common purpose: to foster academic inquiry, stir up debate around pressing social and political issues, and, above all, honor the intellectual clout of the University's faculty.

Martin Marty, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the Divinity School, will deliver the 500th convocation address on Friday, Oct. 9 in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel-in fewer than 15 minutes, he is quick to point out. "At many universities' commencements, it takes 45 minutes just to get through the introduction. At UChicago, you have to say it briefly, or it doesn't get said."

Marty's speech, titled "Laying Siege to Problems," will celebrate the University's propensity to make discoveries and its intellectual spirit. "Discovery is our business at this University, and I always have been impressed by the way our faculty always talk about how interesting something is," regardless of their academic field.

In the past, the convocation speaker has alternated between foreign dignitaries, professors and University presidents (in fact, during his tenure, President Robert Maynard Hutchins insisted on giving an address at least once a year). The convocation speeches thus have a tradition of discussing anything but the graduation itself-with subjects ranging from the state of the University to contemporary political issues.

Another hallmark of the convocation is the bagpipe procession, a trail of graduating students, bagpipers and the University Marshal that wends across the Main Quadrangle toward Rockefeller Memorial Chapel or Harper Court.

"There's a certain sort of old-style, Oxford attractiveness to the convocations in Rockefeller Chapel," recalls Lisbeth Redfield, AB'09, who was a Student Marshal as a College third-year and earned the honor of ushering graduates and attendees at two ceremonies. The combination of marching across the Quad in a long stream of robed students, and the sound of bagpipes playing 'Scotland the Brave,' she said, "makes it feel like a special ceremony to me."

According to University archivist Dan Meyer, Harper wanted to establish the convocation as a special ritual for graduating students, distinguished faculty and visiting speakers and recipients of honorary degrees.

"Most universities refer to their graduation as a commencement," explained Meyer, "but Harper chose 'convocation' to indicate that this wasn't just a routine ceremony. It means a gathering together; a coming together to share an event."

Although convocation typically employs a faculty speaker, one graduating student was asked to speak in place of a professor in June 1969-the only time a student has given the address.

On the heels of a massive student protest against the Vietnam War, Paul Brown, AB'69, MD'75, PhD'75, was given four minutes to address the controversy and reflect on his time at the University. Though he was not a leader of the protest, he had some harsh words for the University administration.

"It was a pretty radical address," said Brown, who is now a physician. "We got a standing ovation from the students, but I don't think the parents cared for it very much."

What Brown would say if he could address the University again?

"I would want to talk about the life of the mind, the importance of a liberal education. Those are the kinds of things the University has always stressed, and have always appealed to me."

"I had a great time at UChicago," he said. "If I hadn't gone there, I wouldn't have all these multiple interests; I wouldn't be reading everything in sight."

-Rachel Cromidas

Related Links

500th Convocation website
Statistician, physicist, geologist, and a South Asian scholar and poet will receive honorary degrees at 500th Convocation
Map of Convocation locations