Back to Baccalaureate

by Donald G. Shockley

Dr. Shockley is university chaplain at Emory University in Atlanta.

This article appeared in the Christian Century June 2, 1982, p. 666. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The baccalaureate service is an effective way for institutions committed to educational objectives emphasizing human values to focus on that fact. Such rituals also serve to strengthen the sense of community among faculty and students.

Last spring, after a lapse of some 15 years, a baccalaureate service was held at Cornell University, and almost all 2,000 seats in Bailey Hall were filled. Across the continent in southern California, participation in a similar service at the Claremont Colleges has more than doubled in the past three years. In response to a survey conducted last summer, chaplains at institutions large and small -- mostly private, but not necessarily church-related -- reported renewed interest in this traditional religious observance associated with graduation from college.

Robert Dewey, dean of Stetson Chapel at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, pointed out that about ten years ago many seniors registered their preference not to have the service. Faculty and administration resisted the abandonment of the tradition, and the service limped along for several years in a quasi-religious vein. But a half-dozen years ago the occasion was reasserted as “unapologetically a service of worship,” and attendance has been strong. “It is not required,” the dean says, “but it is always packed.”

From all around the country -- from Brown and Yale in the east to Occidental and Puget Sound on the opposite coast -- come reports of full houses at baccalaureate. At Emory, in Atlanta, invitations were limited to undergraduate seniors and their families for the first time last spring, and the 1,200-seat campus church was filled to capacity. And in places where the traditional event has not re-emerged, kindred observances are being spawned. Reservations for a commencement-week prayer breakfast at Howard University were cut off, at 500. A “Senior Sunday” at Alma College in Michigan has filled the regular chapel service to capacity for the past two years.

The informal survey of college and university chaplains does not suggest that this phenomenon is merely one more manifestation of the national turn toward more traditional values, although that factor is certainly involved. It is doubtful whether any society can remain healthy for long following the loss of all its rituals, however irrelevant they may appear at particular moments in history. Important points of transition, both collective and individual, somehow need to be acknowledged and accentuated by special acts and symbols; graduation from college continues to be such an event, and the widespread impersonal character of diploma presentations does not satisfy the need for marking the time in a special way. Perhaps, as Kalamazoo’s Dewey asserts, “the baccalaureate service can speak of the mystery, wonder and beauty of it all in a way no other event does.”

The revulsion against established rituals was a part of the era of student disillusionment with the role of institutions. Baccalaureate programs in many places withered and died in that environment, but some were taken over and transformed by students into events more to their liking. So what we have in today’s resurgence is what has evolved from experiments in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, along with the more traditional forms that survived more or less intact. Of particular interest is the way in which the religiously pluralistic character of student bodies, including those of many denominationally affiliated schools, is being addressed.

At the far extreme of innovation is the baccalaureate service which is such in name only. At Grinnell College, for example, the annual event has remained, but it has lost all the overt trappings of a religious ceremony. Gone are the hymns, prayers, litanies and anthems. The president of the Student Government Association serves as “master of ceremonies,” the president of the college makes comments, and there are two faculty and two student speakers, who are as likely to offer reflections on the year just ending as to address them-selves to questions of value and meaning. Awards are given by the Alumni Association. The affair is well attended, but it suggests what used to be called “Class Day” more than the mainstream of the baccalaureate tradition.

If we are to speak of extremes -- without pejorative intent -- at the other end of the spectrum would be those services planned by administrators (whether presidents, deans or chaplains) which have survived as full-blown Christian liturgies expressing the theological tradition behind the institution’s establishment. Such is the case, for example, at Duke and Southern Methodist, where the baccalaureate services are major events at which the institutions’ ties with the Christian tradition are celebrated in an unselfconscious fashion. One is left to wonder if Jewish faculty and students simply take the character of this service for granted and stay away, having assumed that their decision to affiliate with a church-related institution took their potential exclusion from certain university activities into account.

That some institutions choose to conclude the year with formal Christian worship is not necessarily to be understood as the persistence of traditional forms. Occidental College in Los Angeles experimented with an interfaith service but recently made a conscious decision to return to a thoroughly Christian liturgy, including such elements as confession of sin and declaration of pardon. The college chaplain provides the sermon. Last year, following an annual pattern of growth, there was standing room only in Herrick Memorial Chapel.

More typically, the renewal of baccalaureate services has been accompanied by various attempts to accommodate the pluralism which is common to most campuses. How much accommodation there is varies from the excision of overt references to Christ in hymns and prayers, to the inclusion of representatives of other faiths in the planning process. That the new baccalaureate program at Cornell University would be thoroughly interfaith in character is not surprising, since the Cornell United Religious Work has functioned on an interreligious basis for many years. Indeed, an interfaith service is conducted each Sunday morning of the academic year in Sage Chapel.

At Stanford, the choice of baccalaureate speakers rotates among prominent representatives of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish traditions, with the choice being made by an inclusive committee of students and campus clergy. At Yale, where by longstanding custom the president of the university provides the address, Jewish and Roman Catholic chaplains have recently been asked to participate by reading Scripture lessons. At Emory, another school whose president speaks at baccalaureate, care is taken to plan the service in a broadly inclusive manner even though the school’s church-relatedness is currently being reaffirmed in various ways. Being in close touch with its Christian roots is not viewed as incompatible with hospitality toward the many Jewish students who attend the Atlanta school.

On the basis of current information from 25 institutions, it appears that a simple liturgical framework (hymn, prayer, lessons, responsively read psalm, anthem, sermon, hymn, benediction), using traditional materials adapted as needed to suit the participation of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, is the most prevalent form. A notable departure has occurred at the Claremont Colleges where, for several years, the three main religious traditions have been expressed in simultaneous “opening exercises” in separate locations, which are then followed by a common interfaith experience, with Jewish, Catholic and Protestant speakers in alternate years. While participation has increased dramatically, there are complaints from some that the format accentuates differences rather than commonality of experience, and the pattern is being carefully reviewed.

There remains another approach worthy of comment. The surge of student assertiveness during the protest years resulted in student-planned baccalaureate services, which tended to be innovative and less formal than the usual pattern. In some places this approach has not only survived but prospered. Until 1973, for example, the baccalaureate service at Illinois Wesleyan was conducted at the near-campus United Methodist church as a special emphasis in an otherwise regular Sunday liturgy. That year members of the senior class obtained permission to plan their own service, and that has been the practice ever since. The service, held outdoors, features contemporary poetry, dance and popular music as well as more traditional hymns and lessons. The change from a traditional to a contemporary idiom occurred at the University of Redlands in the same year with the same result, right down to the inclusion of dance and the student artwork on the program cover.

At Denison University, an attempt is made to plan a service that is “as nonsectarian as possible,” leaning heavily on contemporary forms and student initiative in planning and presentation. The principal difficulty with such a service is that innovation can so dissipate form and substance, particularly when planned by persons with little liturgical experience, that the overall experience loses focus or veers too sharply toward subjectivity. Nevertheless, at a time when traditional ways are “in” again, it is important to note that the spirit of novelty and innovation continues to be quite strong on Baccalaureate Day.

For any who are contemplating the reinstitution of the baccalaureate service, now would seem to be a good time. It is an effective way for institutions committed to educational objectives emphasizing human values to focus on that fact. Such rituals also serve to strengthen the sense of community among faculty and students. Some schools use the occasion to remember those who have died during the year. Most important, graduation from college continues to be a significant achievement for students and their parents. Even if the world holds out a most uncertain future -- or perhaps just because it does so -- the occasion ought to be marked by reflection and thanksgiving.