Traditions

The University of Virginia, with its Jeffersonian origins and rich history, both embraces tradition and continually looks ahead. Two important traditions are associated with academic achievement.

Final Exercises (Commencement)

The University of Virginia held its first Final Exercises in 1829. This "Public Day," staged in the Rotunda, included a recitation of the names of students receiving honors and student orations. There was little other fanfare, as suggested by this tongue-in-cheek comment from the 1887-88 student yearbook: "In the early period,...the lofty pleasure which attends marching up the central aisle of the Public Hall, and with dumb rapture receiving a fragment of parchment, had not been discovered."

The "public hall" mentioned above became the second venue for Finals, about 1853, when an Annex containing the hall was completed on the north side of the Rotunda. The ceremony remained simple, with faculty and students wearing normal attire rather than caps and gowns.

It is unclear where Finals were held in the years immediately following the 1895 fire in which both the original Rotunda and its Annex were destroyed. By 1902, however, Cabell Hall had been built at the south end of the Lawn, and Finals moved to the auditorium of the new building.

The academic procession, which serves as a hallmark of today’s Final Exercises, did not begin until sometime after 1904, when Edwin Alderman became the University’s first president. Lamenting the lack of pomp and circumstance, Alderman directed that graduating students and faculty members—wearing academic regalia—process from the newly rebuilt Rotunda down the Lawn to Cabell Hall.

By 1922, Final Exercises had moved to the new and larger McIntire Amphitheatre. With the exception of the war years, when smaller classes permitted Finals to be held in the Rotunda and in Cabell Hall, commencement exercises remained at the Amphitheatre until 1953. That year, University President Colgate W. Darden, Jr., moved the ceremony outdoors to the spacious South Lawn, where Final Exercises continue to be held each May. Today, tens of thousands of parents, guests, and faculty members watch as the 5,000-plus students proceed down the Lawn.

Because the academic procession down the Lawn has become such an important rite of passage for graduating students, only the most inclement weather—thunder, lightning, high winds, or other conditions that would make the outdoor ceremony unsafe—prompts Finals to be moved indoors to the John Paul Jones Arena.

Fall Convocation

The Convocation ceremony began in the earliest days of the University and was generally held in the fall to honor members of the community for outstanding achievement.

Fall Convocation today serves two purposes: it recognizes those third-year students who have earned Intermediate Honors, and it pays tribute to the recipients of the Thomas Jefferson Awards, the University's highest honor.

From roughly 1950 to 1976, Fall Convocation was not held. Concerned by declining attendance on Founder’s Day (held annually on April 13, Thomas Jefferson’s birthday), University President Colgate W. Darden, Jr., abolished Fall Convocation and merged the Intermediate Honors ceremony for third-year students (and the Thomas Jefferson Award when it was created in 1955) into Founder’s Day activities.

By 1976, the number of students eligible for Intermediate Honors had grown sufficiently to move the ceremony from Cabell Hall onto the South Lawn. Since autumn weather proved more reliable than spring weather, convocation was restored to its traditional fall schedule.

The Grand Marshal and the University Mace

The grand marshal leads academic processions and introduces presenters during University ceremonies. The honor of acting as grand marshal is a three-year appointment by the University president.

The University mace is carried by the grand marshal. The mace was presented to the University by the Seven Society on April 13, 1961, and has been the University’s symbol of power and authority since then. Made by Patek Philippe of Geneva, Switzerland, it bears University scenes and emblems, including pictures of the Rotunda, the serpentine walls, a colonnaded walkway on the Lawn, and the statues of Thomas Jefferson and The Aviator.

President Roosevelt Speaks at Final Exercises

Among the students graduating with the Class of 1940 was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., who attended law school at the University of Virginia. His father, who was then completing his second term as President of the United States, agreed to provide the commencement address. After a thunderstorm forced the event indoors from the Amphitheatre to Memorial Gym, Roosevelt made history by giving his famous "dagger" speech, excerpted here:

On this tenth day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger [Italy] has struck it into the back of its neighbor [France].

On this tenth day of June, 1940, in this University founded by the first great American teacher of democracy, we send forth our prayers and our hopes to those beyond the seas who are maintaining with magnificent valor their battle for freedom.

In our American unity, we will pursue two obvious and simultaneous courses: we will extend to the opponents of force the material resources of this nation; and, at the same time, we will harness and speed up the use of those resources in order that we ourselves in the Americas may have equipment and training equal to the task of any emergency and every defense.