Commence and Go Forth - University of Arkansas Commencement Speeches

While there is evidence of commencement ceremonies starting as early as 1873, the earliest Commencement Program held in the University of Arkansas archives is dated June 17, 1875. The ceremony was held in a brand new building, which is now known as Old Main.

Commencement speech delivered at Razorback Stadium

Dr. John W. Gardner is pictured giving the commencement address in Razorback Stadium in 1967. Picture Collection 1916

Historical Background

Commencement is a rite of passage that most young adults share. The University of Arkansas, originally named Arkansas Industrial University, opened to students on January 22, 1872. While there is evidence of commencement ceremonies starting as early as 1873, the earliest Commencement Program held in the University of Arkansas archives is dated June 17, 1875. The ceremony was held in a brand new building, which is now known as Old Main, even though the building was not quite finished. No student qualified to earn a University degree, though a few students received a teaching certificate from the normal department. The first bachelor’s degrees were awarded at the commencement ceremony in 1876. Nine degrees were awarded.

Commencement Program Cover June, 17 1875

University of Arkansas commencement activities have varied greatly over the years. In the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century, commencement ceremonies usually lasted from Saturday to Wednesday. The festivities often started with a play, sometimes written by students or faculty for the occasion. Sunday featured a baccalaureate sermon and musical concerts. Other activities during the celebration included art exhibits, military drills and dress parades, debates, musical performances, and engineering exhibitions. Physical training exercises took place for many years and in 1909 consisted of a dumb-bell drill, fencing, folk dance, minuet, and boxing (in that order). Usually a ceremony during the week included the reading of the class history, class poem, and class prophesy. During this era, diplomas were usually awarded on Wednesday. By the 1930s, the festivities were shortened, and diplomas were awarded on Monday. By the late 1940s, awarding of degrees was moved to Saturday, while the additional Sunday chapel services and musical concerts lasted into the 1960s.

Commencement ceremonies have been held in various locations on campus. As the campus population has grown, the venue has grown as well. Ceremonies have been held in Old Main and the Greek Theater as well as in athletic stadiums and arenas, including the Men’s Gym, Razorback Stadium, Barnhill Arena, and Bud Walton Arena. Today, graduate students receive their individual diplomas in one ceremony, while each college has a separate ceremony for undergraduate students to receive their individual diplomas. In 2015, a total of 5,741 degrees were awarded.

Over the years, commencement speakers have ranged from politicians to businessmen to university presidents and other scholars. This collection contains speeches by Hubert Humphrey, Wilbur Mills, Brooks Hays, and Rodney Slater, among others. All speakers have imparted some piece of wisdom to the graduating class as many of the students stand at a crossroads and start a new chapter in their lives.

1896 University of Arkansas graduates in regalia

The graduating class from 1896 poses in front of Old Main. Ida G. Barr Scrapbook (MC 619)

Collection Specifications

Commencement ceremony at the U of A Greek Theater

For many years, commencement ceremonies were held in the Chi Omega Greek Theater as pictured in this photograph from the 1930s. Walter John Lemke Papers (MS L541, Image 1015)

This digital exhibit contains speeches located in various manuscript collections and publications. The digital exhibit features scans of speeches in various states from published versions to versions still containing editing marks and handwritten notes. Each speech is accompanied by a transcript for ease of use. The first phase of the project features speeches from 1947 to 2007 with the bulk of the collection from the 1940s to the 1970s. Additional speeches will be added as they are discovered or donated to the University of Arkansas Libraries Special Collections. 

Images were scanned as pdf using a Xerox Work Center 7125. Optical Character Recognition was added using ABBYY FineReader. CONTENTdm digital asset management software from OCLC was used for creating metadata, using Dublin Core standards, Library of Congress Name Authorities, and the Art and Architectural Thesaurus.

The project was completed in October 2015 and was coordinated by Amy Allen and Angela Fritz with additional collaboration by Lee Holt, Deb Kulczak, Martha Parker, Janet Parsch, Heath Robinson, Alexsis Bell, and Dylan Hurd.

For questions about the digital project or if you have additional commencement speeches not in this exhibit, please contact Amy Allen, University Archivist at or 479-575-5577.

Project Citation
“Commence and Go Forth: University of Arkansas Commencement Speeches.” Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, October 2015.
U of A Commencement ceremonies at Barnhill Arena

Graduates and guests attend commencement in Barnhill Arena in 1986. University of Arkansas, University Relations Photographs. (MC 1302, Box 19, File 4)