On June 14, 1884, less than a year after The University of Texas opened its doors, students and faculty gathered at Millett Opera House (now the Austin Club) for UT’s first commencement. The president of Tulane University delivered the “commencement oration,” and 13 students, all from the law school and all men, graduated that day. The student body then consisted of just more than 200 young men and women, who were taught by eight professors and four assistants. The campus was one building around which cattle grazed.
From those modest beginnings, the university has grown and diversified, and its university-wide commencement ceremony has too. What started as a perfunctory gathering has evolved into a theatrical spectacle of music, light, speakers, and fireworks that combine to inspire more than 5,000 graduates and 20,000 family members, friends, and members of the university community. For graduates, it is the start of a new chapter in life. For UT Austin and for Texas, it’s an annual celebration of the university at its best.
UT Austin has more than 40 ceremonial maces that are carried in processions at official occasions including Commencement, Honors Day and presidential inaugurations. Many of the original maces were crafted by Professor Carl Eckhart (see also “Lighting the Tower”), carved from lumber salvaged from the original Old Main Building. Others have been added over the years to mark special anniversaries and historical occasions or as new colleges and schools have been created.
Why is the Tower Orange?
Few people left a greater legacy of traditions than Carl J. Eckhardt Jr. With two engineering degrees and a faculty post, Eckhardt became head of the Physical Plant in 1931. That positioned him to supervise the construction of the campus’ new landmark — the Main Building and Tower. Eckhardt devised a lighting system to take advantage of its commanding architecture to announce university achievements. The Tower was completed in 1937, and Eckhardt’s orange lights flooded it the very same year. In 1947, he helped create guidelines for using the orange lights. An all-orange Tower with the number “1” on all sides signals a national championship. The full Tower glowing orange alone represents special occasions the president deems appropriate. The Tower top bathed in orange symbolizes other victories, a conference title in any intercollegiate sport, or academic achievements. The Tower is also darkened for solemn occasions.
For Commencement, the Tower glows orange and the Tower windows on each side display the last two digits of the year of each graduating class.
Not every university sends its graduates off like UT Austin. Fireworks were introduced as a standard finale to the ceremony in 1994. They are launched from numerous platforms, both on top of the Main Building below the Tower, and from the observation deck at the top of the Tower. Whether seated on the Main Mall or watching from a distant part of the city, the effect is one that will stay with you for a lifetime.
Past Commencement Speakers
Revisit the historic 2020 Commencement Address from the internationally acclaimed researcher, author and speaker Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work.
Revisit the historic 2019 Commencement Address from Michael S. Dell, chairman and chief executive officer of Dell Technologies and co-founder of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
Vice Adm. Raquel C. Bono delivered the Commencement Address on May 19, 2018.
Former Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown delivered the Commencement Address on May 20, 2017.
UT System Regent Sara Martinez Tucker delivered the keynote address on May 21, 2016.