The first graduation ceremony at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor was actually held at the First Presbyterian Church and would continue there for 11 years until a larger assembly hall was built on the campus.
By the time of the University’s first commencement on Aug. 6, 1845, the first days of the entering class must have seemed like ancient history. Enrollment had grown nearly tenfold, to 52 students, with a full complement of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. There were five professors and instructors. The Main Building – now called Mason Hall, in tribute to Gov. Stevens T. Mason – was cramped and an expansion was in the works.
The regents readied themselves for the University’s first commencement, and mandated that it be a dignified affair. “There shall be no military parade, bands of professional musicians, illuminations, or fireworks, balls, parties, or feasting by the students on the occasion of the Commencement.”
There was another reason for an air of sobriety. Less than three weeks before graduation, Professor Whiting – one of the first two teachers to greet the boys – died. His unexpected death stunned the community. “We fear it will not be easy to fill the place he has left in the University,” the regents announced. Whiting, they said, had endeared himself by “having participated largely in the cares, anxieties, and labors incident to the first years of the University.”
On the eve of graduation, the Detroit Free Press issued a call to all “graduates from Eastern colleges” to make their way to Ann Arbor to welcome Michigan’s first alumni. “This occasion should be made a yearly festival among the cultivated men of the State.” Trains would depart Detroit the next morning to celebrate “a small class, but of most creditable scholarship.”
That Class of 1845 numbered 11, including four who first stepped forward in 1841: Merchant Huxford Goodrich, George Edgar Parmelee, Judson Dwight Collins and George Washington Pray. William Wesson was forced by illness to leave school in 1842. And Lyman Norris, who was the first to enroll, left Ann Arbor after two years and finished his degree at Yale University.
Graduating seniors, faculty and other students marched from campus to the Presbyterian Church. Speeches were read (too long, complained a reporter) and poems recited. Each graduate was awarded a bachelor of arts degree, inscribed with his name on parchment affixed with a seal.
The Rev. George Duffield, head of the First Protestant Society of Detroit, traveled from the city to be the commencement speaker. He called the graduates “the first fruits of our University so successfully established in this young State, but recently the home and hunting ground of the wild untutored savage.”
Knowledge, he told them, is not limited to “a privileged class of men,” but rather is open to all. A college education does not make one a true scholar, he warned. “The design of academic instruction is not to turn out the perfect scholar, but to furnish the young man with sufficient material and elements to render himself such.”
He went on: “We mean it not as flattery, but frankly express our delight, when we say to you, young gentlemen of the recent Senior class—we hail in you a pledge of better things.”
Afterward, there was discussion of forming an alumni society.
“So passed the first Commencement in Michigan,” wrote a Free Press editor. “May it be only the harbinger of more distinguished days.”
Michigan Every Day.
Kim Clarke, “The First Freshmen“, University of Michigan Heritage Project.