500—and counting

This morning the University of Chicago held its 500th convocation ceremony. What’s that—UChicago is 127 years older than Harvard? Sadly, no. Since its founding in 1891, Chicago has held a graduation ceremony four times a year, at the end of each academic quarter, plus special convocations for occasions such as presidential inaugurations, when the University awards honorary degrees. Therefore—according to the same brand of creative accounting that allows Chicago to claim Bertrand Russell among its Nobel laureates—the University has achieved 500 ceremonies, not ceremonies for 500 years.

Curious about the convocation tradition, I visited Andrew Hannah, the registrar. Hannah showed me a breakdown of all University graduates going back to spring 1893, the first time degrees were given out. Suddenly the University of Chicago didn’t seem like such an exclusive club: how exclusive can it be when 232,127 memberships have been extended? (More creative accounting: the 1893 ceremony was actually the third convocation. At the first two, in 1891 and 1892, there were speakers but no graduates. If you don’t count those events, though, we’re only at 498.)

Convocations at the fledgling University were tiny, as you would imagine. At the 1893 ceremony 34 degrees were awarded: one doctorate (awarded first, to make the point that this was a graduate institution, not just another garden-variety Baptist college), four masters degrees, 14 divinity, and 15 baccalaureate.

UChicagoMedallion.jpgOf course, the numbers picked up quickly. By 1896–97 there were 205 grads, and the figure roughly doubled every ten years: 538 grads in 1906–07, 944 in 1916–17, and 1,697 in 1926–27. It stayed in the upper thousands—with the exception of a dip during World War II—until 1946–47, when returning GIs swelled the ranks to 2,269.

The hard figures clearly show the “small College” years: in spring 1965 the University awarded more master’s degrees than bachelor’s degrees, not even counting all the MBAs. The trend lasted until spring 1979, when ABs narrowly pulled ahead, beating the AMs 397–394. For the past 20 years, the AB number has been on the increase, cracking into the thousands for the first time in spring 2007. Last spring the University unleashed 1,097 freshly minted bachelor’s degrees upon the world.

Which brings me to another question: Why does UChicago make such a point of calling its degrees AB and AM? Yes, yes, I know, it’s Latin, Artium baccalaureus, got it. But if I think back to my creaky high-school Latin (Hi, Mrs. Zachry!), it is not a language—unlike German, for example—that puts much emphasis on word order. Why does the adjective have to follow the noun?

So I called over to the classics department to ask if anyone would humor me by answering a very basic Latin question. They not only humored me, they put me on speakerphone. “In basic prose composition, the convention is that the adjective follows the noun it modifies,” explained lecturer Jessica Seidman, AM’08. “In a longer work, you would have more variation in word order. But in a two-word type of situation, you would usually go with the canonical form.”

“College degrees came much later than classical times, but there was a long Latin tradition that lasted up until a century ago, and the AB word order would be part of that tradition,” added lecturer Alex Lee. “Having said that”—CAUTION: heresy alert—“grammatically speaking, it is not a violation to write BA.”

“Alas,” says University archivist Daniel Meyer, AM’75, PhD’94, today the language on the degrees is English. Originally the entire degree was written in Latin, including the graduate and faculty names. For example, on the doctoral certificate for Edith Abbott, PhD 1905, cofounder of the School of Social Service Administration, she is addressed in accusative case (Editham), and the signatures of University officials also appear in Latinate form: Guilielmus Raineius Harper, Martinus Antonius Ryerson, Henricus Pratt Judson. Another bygone characteristic: the degrees were printed on parchment.

At some point the language was changed to the vernacular and the medium to paper, but neither Meyer nor Hannah seems to know when. I considered e-mailing John Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, dean of the College, who has written 14 monographs on University history, but didn’t. Early in the academic year, surely he must be attending to more pressing matters.

So I’m left with as many questions as I had when I started, but different ones. For example: Why does Columbia University’s undergraduate college continue to print its diplomas in Latin (“The only thing I could read was my name,” says my cubicle neighbor and Columbia alumna, Katherine Muhlenkamp) yet call the degree a BA? Why does no one at UChicago seem to know or care why the degrees are no longer in Latin, but when Harvard changed to English in 1961, 4,000 furious Harvard students took to the streets in the Diploma Riots?

Finally, why are some degrees still in Latin at all? While searching for institutions that award Latin degrees, I come across this Internet plea: “Please translate this Latin diploma from Howard University! The secretary’s office at Howard University is...less than helpful. They print their diplomas in Latin and won’t give you a translation unless the graduate fills out a form. My boss and I don’t need an authorized, sealed translated diploma; we just need something in English so Immigration doesn’t get mad, and we need it ASAP.”

Is there really some additional cachet to the fact that degree recipients—classics graduates excepted—can’t read their own diplomas? Surely it makes one feel less educated, not more. After all, tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. If you don’t know what it means, look it up on Wikipedia.

Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93

October 9, 2009