The Ohio State University Alumni Association

The circumstance of commencement may change, but the pomp endures.

The university that came into the world as the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College underwent a name change before its first class graduated on June 19, 1878. Those six graduates of The Ohio State University, all men, received their diplomas in the University Hall chapel and heard President Edward Orton speak on “The Liberal Education of the Industrial Class.”

Prior to that first commencement, a “colors committee” of three students was tasked with choosing ribbons to secure the graduates’ diplomas. Unable to Google “university colors already taken,” the students’ first choice was orange and black, but they settled for scarlet and gray after learning Princeton had used their top pick. Committee member Alice Townshend shared the thinking that would go on to shape the wardrobes of hundreds of thousands of students, alumni and sports fans: Scarlet and gray looked nice together, and no other university had yet laid claim to them.

Thus, Ohio State’s earliest alumni were sent into the world with scarlet-and-gray-beribboned diplomas in hand, the first of some 745,000 degrees the university has awarded.

Today, the university’s thrice-yearly commencements are filled with meaning and traditions that have been building for nearly a century and a half. Take a look at how these undertakings have evolved in the years since that inaugural class.


Ohio State’s second graduating class includes the first alumna, Mary Franc Morrison, who earns her degree four decades before women are granted the right to vote. Morrison Tower residence hall is named for her.


Commencement becomes a four-day event that includes a baccalaureate sermon, an address by President Walter Q. Scott, lectures, a parade and a reception at the president’s house.

First graduating class, 1878
Processional past Hayes Hall, 1907
Commencement brochures from 1907, 1908, 1930 and 1920

(Photos courtesy of University Archives.)


An increasing number of graduates prompts commencement to move from University Hall for the first time. Other locations through the years include the Oval, Armory, Ohio State Fairgrounds’ Coliseum, Men’s Gymnasium and eventually Ohio Stadium. Some of those locations and St. John Arena also host commencements after the fall, winter and summer terms. Today, all celebrations other than the spring commencement take place at the Schottenstein Center.

Processional past the Armory, 1912
Page Hall, 1917
Commencement on the Oval, 1918
Women in processional, 1919
Graduates on the Oval, 1919
At the state fairgrounds coliseum, 1923


The first commencement in Ohio Stadium also features the first female commencement speaker, Helen Parkhurst. She is a national expert on alternative elementary school instruction and conducts a demonstration school on campus for education majors.


Constraints of the Great Depression return commencement to a one-day affair.


This ceremony marks the first of only two times the event is canceled because of rain. The second comes in 1997, after which President E. Gordon Gee’s office sends graduates the day’s program, “to replace the one that may have served as your umbrella.”

Ohio Stadium, 1928
Attendees cope with conditions at the university’s first-ever rained-out commencement, 1941
President Gerald Ford addressing graduates, 1974


WOSU radio broadcasts commencement for the first time.


The August ceremony features President Gerald Ford, the first of three sitting presidents to address Ohio State graduates. The others: President George W. Bush in 2002 and President Barack Obama in 2013.


Renovations to Ohio Stadium move spring commencement to the Oval for the first time since 1918, and it is held there through spring 2001.


Student government succeeds in having spring commencement moved from Friday to Sunday to allow more families to attend.

Commencement on the Oval during Ohio Stadium’s renovation, 1999
On the Oval, 1999
Spring candlelight ceremony on the Oval, 2014


A new tradition begins with the first Commencement Eve Candlelight Ceremony, held on the Oval the evening before graduation. Students and their families hear from university leaders and a student speaker, receive a class pin and sing “Carmen Ohio.”


The university’s 400th commencement ceremony also is its final one under the quarter system.


About 11,500 graduates march in spring commencement. Planning for the day takes a village or, more accurately, about a dozen university offices and all academic units. See a gallery of photos celebrating the university’s largest-ever graduating class.

Stephanie Waite contributed.