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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Commencement Speeches

 Collection — Box: 1-2
Identifier: AC 45

Scope and Contents

Contents of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Commencement Speeches collection (AC 45) consists of original speech drafts, photocopies of speeches, newspaper clippings of speech excerpts from The New York Times and speech excerpts from The Polytechnic, and first hand accounts of the commencement speeches from 1826 and 1827.


  • Other: 1826-present

Biographical or Historical Information

The first commencement at RPI was held on April 26, 1826. Asa Fitch, class of 1827, attended the ceremony and wrote of his experience in his diary. This ceremony was held in the Old Bank Place in Troy and graduates delivered lecture demonstrations as part of the ceremony, as Fitch recalls in his diary. The early commencement speakers were the current presidents of RPI; Nathan S.S. Beman, John F. Winslow, and James Forsyth. By 1877, RPI alumnus Alfred P. Boller, class of 1861, was the first of many alumni to have the honor of commencement speaker. During periods of war, commencement speakers tend to be admirals, captains, or colonels. With the exception of WWI and the Iraq War. By the end of WWI, Revered Dr. Joseph H. Odell was the commencement speaker in 1918 and 1920. In 1919, RPI did not have a speaker but instead conferred degrees to returning veterans. Prior to 1969, commencement speakers typically had a background in engineering, a role in the US government, or president of their own company. Beginning with Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1969, commencement speakers began including people with unique backgrounds. Science writer Isaac Asimov, environmentalist Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and social historian Alvin Toffler, were among the speakers outside of the engineering community. Since 1970, RPI has hosted a number of unique commencement speakers and in 1978 Dixy Ray Lee was the first woman commencement speaker. Following Lee, other prominent women in American history were honored as speakers as well, including Hilary Rodham Clinton, Regina M. Benjamin, Ginni Rometty, and Admiral Michelle Howard.

Note written by


0.40 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



Original speech drafts and photocopies of speeches, published excerpts, speech reprints, and first hand accounts of early speeches.

Arrangement Note

The records are arranged in chronological order.

Related Materials

See also Institute Publications Collection, Series III, Commencement Invitations (1860-) and Commencement Programs (1853-), and Series VIII, Reading of Theses (1857-1941)

Other Descriptive Information

Please visit the Archives website for a complete list of Commencement speakers and Honoary Degree Recipients.

Processing Information

Originally the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Commencement Speeches collection items were a part of the R.P.I. President’s Office Records collection (1990-20), acquired in 1990. The collection consisted of commencement addresses, miscellaneous records from commencement ceremonies, baccalaureate service pamphlets, and commissioning exercise records. The commencement speeches were already housed in a separate box from the other records and did not include any other miscellaneous records. Once the commencement speeches were pulled from the original collection and rearranged in chronological order, it became clear that majority of the speeches were missing. In an attempt to complete the collection, the archivists located as many commencement speeches as possible. Some speeches were found in the subject file, copied from other collections in the archives, and found in The Polytechnic. Some of the speeches found did not include the entire speech, as seen in clippings from The New York Times and excerpts from Asa Fitch's diary. While many speeches were located and housed in the collection, some speeches could not be located. The items of this collection were collected by Institute archivists, however the creator of each record varies, making it difficult to find all commencement speeches given at RPI.

Renae Rapp
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Institute Archives and Special Collections Repository

110 8th Street
Institute Archives and Special Collections
Rensselaer Libraries, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy NY 12180-3590 US
518 276 8340