History of Brown's Commencement

Commencement day at Brown University is a time of great ceremony, pageantry, and rejoicing, much of it representing traditions that are centuries old. These notes on the history, setting, and action of the Brown Commencement are offered in the hope that they will add to your enjoyment of this unique academic celebration.


The seventh-oldest college in the United States, Brown was founded in 1764 as the College of the Colony of Rhode Island under the leadership of the Rhode Island Baptists.

The first Commencement was held on September 7, 1769, in what was then the College's home, the Baptist Meeting House in Warren, Rhode Island, ten miles south of Providence. Seven young men were awarded degrees. The institution moved to Providence the following year, and in 1804 it acquired its present name in honor of a major benefactor, Nicholas Brown of Providence, class of 1786.

For the six years prior to the Declaration of Independence, Commencement ceremonies were held in Father Snow's Meeting House in downtown Providence, now Beneficent Congregational Church. In 1776 the ceremony moved to the First Baptist Meeting House, built in 1774—75 to house the oldest Baptist church in America, founded by Roger Williams in 1638, the second year of his exile from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The meeting house was erected "for the publick Worship of Almighty GOD and also for holding Commencement in." A National Historic Landmark, it was completely restored in 1958 through a gift from the late John D. Rockefeller Jr., class of 1897.

In the early days Brown's Commencement was known as "the festival of Providence," widely attended by enthusiastic townsfolk. So disorderly was their conduct that in 1791 the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law requiring the high sheriff of Providence County to attend all Commencements "to preserve the peace, good order, and decorum in and about the Meeting House." The law still stands, and the sheriff still marches, identifiable by full evening dress, high silk hat, blue sash, and sword.

During the 20th century, members of Brown's alumni classes began to hold their five-year reunions to coincide with Commencement weekend. Today more than 4,000 alumni and their families return to College Hill each year for a series of events capped by the Commencement procession on Sunday morning.


Sunday morning, while the Commencement procession forms on the College Green, the Brown Band begins to play the lilting "Brown Commencement March," arranged by the late Wally Reeves. The music is punctuated by the pealing of the College bell, which has rung from the cupola of University Hall since 1791; it is joined by the Meeting House bell, imported from England in 1775.

The parade is led by the chief marshal, a member of the 50-year reunion class, and by the chief and assistant chief of staff. They are followed by the color guard and alumni aides and marshals from various reunion classes. The men traditionally dress in top hats and tails, while women wear academic robes. The faculty, thousands of alumni, the graduating class, present and emeriti members of the Brown Corporation, invited guests, and the presidential party round out the mile-long procession.

The procession marches from the campus through the Van Wickle Gates, which open inward to admit entering classes and outward to discharge the degree candidates on Commencement Day. The senior class continues down the hill to the grounds of the Meeting House, at one point halting to form an inversion that allows each marcher to pass by the others, to mutual applause. The MD and graduate degree candidates report to their respective Commencement sites in the First Unitarian Church and on Simmons Quadrangle and Pembroke Field.


Prominent among the marchers are members of the Brown Corporation, the University's governing body, consisting of 12 fellows and 42 trustees. They can be identified by their large, floppy "trencher" hats, which were approved for use by the Brown Corporation in 1912 to provide a distinctive alternative to the traditional academic cap. Other colleges and universities have subsequently adopted the style. Robes, designed and adopted in 1968, are of the University's colors: seal brown and cardinal red, with black velvet trim.

Invited guests include candidates for honorary degrees, U.S. senators and congressional representatives from Rhode Island, the governor of Rhode Island, the mayor of Providence, and members of the city council, state legislature, and federal and state judiciary.


The presidential party — the president, the chancellor, the vice-chancellor, the chaplain, and the sheriff — is led by a mace bearer who is a faculty member and a Brown alumnus.


Once a weapon used to crush an opponent's armor, the mace has evolved into a symbol of authority. Brown's mace, which weighs more than 20 pounds, was given to the University in 1928. It is adorned with symbols from Brown's past and with the names of its presidents and prominent 19th-century alumni. The mace is carried in processions at the opening of the academic year, at Commencement, and at ceremonies where honors or degrees are to be awarded.


The president's academic gown, and the golden chain and pendant that adorn her neck, became the official presidential regalia during the University's bicentennial celebration in 1964—65; the robe was designed by the late Anne S.K. (Mrs. John Nicholas) Brown, an expert on military and ceremonial dress. The caps, gowns, and hoods of others in the procession represent a tradition of academic dress that began in the 12th and 13th centuries, when cold stone buildings housed medieval universities. The gowns were an adaptation of clerical garb.


A scholar's hood, worn around the neck and hanging down the back, denotes degree, field, and alma mater. The band of velvet circling the outer edge of the hood varies in width according to the highest degree attained: narrow for the bachelor's degree, medium for the master's, and broad for the doctorate. The color represents the field of scholarship: arts and letters, white; economics, copper; education and pedagogy, light blue; engineering, orange; humanities, crimson; law, purple; medicine, kelly green; music, pink; philosophy, blue; science, gold; and theology, scarlet. The hood is lined with the colors of the institution attended by the wearer. A Brown University hood is lined in seal brown crossed by a broad band of cardinal red.


The cane carried by the president of the Brown Alumni Association serves as the symbol of that office. It is made of oak taken from University Hall when the building was reconstructed during the 1880s.


Unlike most colleges and universities, Brown invites no Commencement speaker for the College ceremonies. On the College Green on Commencement morning, two members of the senior class, selected by a faculty committee, deliver short orations. The Graduate Student Council selects the student speaker for the Graduate School Convocation on Simmons Quadrangle. The Medical School invites a speaker to address its graduating class in the First Unitarian Church.


The conferring of bachelor's degrees is accomplished verbally on the grounds of the Meeting House, and the presentation of symbolic diplomas comes later on the College Green. Still later in the day, the seniors receive their actual diplomas at separate disciplinary ceremonies.

The words spoken by the president on the grounds of the Meeting House are:

Socii honorandi: Juvenes quos ad gradum Baccalaurei idoneos comperimus, vobis praesentamus, et eos ad hunc gradum promovere liceat rogamus. Candidati ad gradum Baccalaurei auscultabunt. Auctoritate mihi commissa vos ad gradum Baccalaueri admitto, omniaque jura ac privilegia ad hunc gradum pertinentia, vobis concedo. In huius rei testimonium diplomata vestris conlegis in Collegii Gramine tradam.

Honorable Fellows: The youths whom we have found to be qualified for the bachelor's degree we now present to you, and we ask that they may come forward for the awarding of the degree. May the candidates for the bachelor's degree listen attentively. Through the authority entrusted to me I admit you to the bachelor's degree, and all the rights and privileges associated with this degree I confer upon you. In testimony thereof I will presently deliver your diplomas to your representatives on the College Green.
After the president pronounces the awarding of the bachelor's degrees, all degree recipients return to the Green for the University Ceremony.

The Graduate School and Medical School have separate Commencements for the awarding of master's degrees, PhDs, and MDs.


Following the senior orations, the ceremony takes place. The president takes her seat in the centuries-old Manning Chair, which once belonged to Brown's first chancellor, Stephen Hopkins, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an early Rhode Island governor. It was used by Brown's first president, James Manning, and has seated successive presidents at their inaugurations and on Commencement Day. During the ceremony on the Green, the president bestows diplomas on representatives of each category of baccalaureate degree and then speaks this admonition: Videte igitur ut probe, integreque, in emolumentum rei publicae et in Dei honorem, ut decet eos hoc gradu honoratos vos geratis. "Take care that you conduct yourselves, with probity and integrity to the credit of the state and the honor of God, as befits those who have been honored with this degree."

The ceremony continues with the awarding of the honorary degrees. A benediction concludes the formalities on the College Green.

Separate disciplinary diploma ceremonies, inaugurated in 1974, are conducted immediately following the ceremony on the Green by department chairs. Each ceremony is attended by the faculty of the department, a representative from the Corporation, the degree recipients, and their parents and guests. The ceremony sites are listed at the end of the Commencement program.