A Brief History of UO Commencement

On Monday, June 17th, the graduating class of 2019 will participate in the 142nd annual spring commencement.  This event, held at Matthew Knight Arena, is the culmination of years of hard work and academic achievement.

This year’s commencement speaker, Governor Kate Brown, is the 5th Oregon governor and 13th woman to deliver the spring commencement address. Antonia Brico, conductor and pianist, was the first female keynote speaker at the 1976 spring ceremony. Other female speakers include Hanna Holborn Gray, Corazon Aquino, Ann Curry, and Marian Wright Edelman.

The style of the commencement address evolved over the years. First, it was an address to the graduating class comprised of only five students in 1878. Then it evolved into an address before the university in 1882, and to a commencement address beginning in 1913. In the 1950s and 1960s, the speech was referred to as a charge to the graduating class.  In recent decades, a designated keynote speaker delivers the commencement speech. Since 2001, the speakers have almost exclusively been UO professors or UO alums.

The history of UO’s commencement speakers represent varied career backgrounds. Past speakers included judges, lawyers, politicians, religious leaders, civic leaders, and presidents and professors from other universities. Four Oregon governors delivered commencement addresses while in office:

  • W. Thayer (1882)
  • George E. Chamberlain (1904)
  • Robert W. Straub (1977)
  • Victor Atiyeh (1979)

The most frequent individual speaker was Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR), who addressed the graduating class in 1980, 1988, and 1997. When combined, UO presidents comprise the most frequent group of speakers with a total of 29 speeches. Most, but not all, delivered the commencement address coinciding with their leave from office:

  • Donald Milton Erb (1938-1943)
  • Orlando John Hollis (1944-1945) interim president
  • Harry K. Newburn (1947-1949)
  • O. Meredith Wilson (1954, 1958-1960, 1986)
  • William Charles Jones (1961) interim president
  • Arthur Sherwood Flemming (1963-1968)
  • Charles Ellicott Johnson (1969) interim president
  • Robert D. Clark (1970, 1975)
  • Paul Olum (1989)
  • Dave Frohnmayer (2009)

The day, time, and the location of the commencement speech changed throughout the ceremony’s history. The speech did not always coincide with the conferral of degrees, sometimes preceding by a day. Speeches were delivered every day of the week, and occurred morning, afternoon, and evening. The change of the speech’s location reflects the growth of the graduating class and campus development.

Commencement Locations:

  • Deady Hall (1878-1897)
  • Villard Hall (1898-1921)
  • Woman’s Building (now known as Gerlinger Hall) (1922-1926)
  • McArthur Court (1927-1953) (would serve in later years as a rainy day option)
  • Hayward Field (1954-1967)
  • Autzen Stadium (1968-1971)
  • Hayward Field (1972-1986)
  • Autzen Stadium (1987-1994)
  • Hayward Field (1995-2000)
  • McArthur Court (2001-2009)
  • Hayward Field (2010-2011)
  • Matthew Knight Arena (2012-present)

Commencement programs can be found in the University Archives publications collection.

For additional information about UO graduation, check out a three-part series about UO graduation ceremonies written in 2015 by Zach Bigalke, student research assistant:

Paths of Life: How Modern UO Graduation Compares to 19th Century Commencement Ceremonies

Pomp and Circumstance: Zola Grimes, Graduation Attire and 19th Century Student Life

Commencement Speeches from Yesteryear


—Lauren Goss, Accessioning and Processing Archivist

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