Last week the “Seton Hall University Class of 2017” Facebook page was buzzing after the Office of the Provost sent an email announcing undergraduate commencement would take place on campus this year. While this change was a shock to many students, it is not unprecedented. For the greater part of Seton Hall’s history, commencement on campus was a tradition.
Archivist Alan Delozier took a deep dive into Seton Hall’s past to explore the history of commencement ceremonies.
Delozier found that the first recorded commencement took place in 1862 and was held on campus. The campus locale remained until 1986 when the University made the switch to the then Meadowlands Arena, now Izod Center. The Izod Center was the new constant for SHU until the recent 2015 switch to the Prudential Center, according to University Archives.
The archives showed that while on campus, commencement placement varied between Walsh Gymnasium, the Campus Green in front of McNulty Hall, and even the Xavier Hall parking lot.
The University has had large crowds before, according to SHU archives. One of Seton Hall’s most notable commencement ceremonies happened in 1983 and was held on campus. The graduating class that year had President Ronald Reagan as its commencement speaker.
“The commencement took place on the baseball-soccer field with huge bleachers erected on the outer perimeters for guests. Students had a ringside seat for what was the most exciting commencement ceremony we have ever had,” said Mary Ellen Farrell in an email. Farrell, the University Registrar, has served on the commencement committee for about 30 years and is the co-chair. “Helicopters came swooping in to land on campus bringing the president and his entourage.”
The 1983 graduating class had 1,161 undergraduate students, found Delozier, but according to The Setonian from 1983, over 10,000 people attended the ceremony.
Since 1983, the campus has grown more crowded as new buildings have been constructed. Farrell said parking then was not the major consideration it is now.
Dr. Msgr. Dennis Mahon, an associate professor of communication, was on the Commencement Committee in 1985, the last year graduation was held on campus. He recalled one year where the white tent where graduation was held was lifted off the ground by strong winds.
“The graduate commencements involve hundreds of people, but the undergraduate commencement involves thousands,” Mahon said in an email interview. “The dilemma is that in order to provide accommodation for so many more undergrads, and all the family and friends, given parking, traffic and other logistics…that size audience forces you off campus.”
This year the University officials are addressing that dilemma by splitting graduation up into three different ceremonies. According to the archives, this too has happened before.
From 1961 to 1970, commencement on campus was split into morning and afternoon ceremonies. In 1971 it was one ceremony, but it was back to multiple ceremonies from 1972 to 1982. Since then, it has been one ceremony for the entire graduating class, according to the archives.
Students have been critical of the current plan to split ceremonies, with only preliminary details released so far.
Cameron Wheeler, a senior diplomacy and international relations major, said via emai. His main concern is that everyone will not be able to graduate together.
Other concerns expressed on the “Seton Hall University Class of 2017” Facebook page include parking, limited tickets for family and not allowing the students to have a say in the location decision.
The last time commencement was held on campus, 963 undergraduate students marched, according to the archives. Last year’s ceremony at the Prudential Center featured about 1,375 undergraduates. Numbers have not been released yet for this year.
After Wheeler learned of Seton Hall’s commencement history, he said he still does not want graduation to return to campus.
“It makes it more upsetting because we are breaking a 30-year tradition of having commencement off campus,” Wheeler said.
Siobhan McGirl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.