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A Sequi-Sensational Commencement

July 1, 1997

Mark Miester

In 1847, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were born, the nation issued its first postage stamp, the uninspiring James K. Polk sat in the Oval Office, and the United States-- all 29 of them--were in the second of a three-year war with Mexico.

Closer to home, on Feb. 16 Louisiana Gov. Isaac Johnson signed Act 49 of the state General Assembly, establishing a university in New Orleans--eventually renamed Tulane University--that would comprise departments of law, medicine and, in the parlance of the day, "the natural sciences and letters."

That "natural sciences and letters" department went through a progression of names over the years, but its identity as Tulane's college of arts and sciences for men--today known, as it was in the late 19th century, as Tulane College--has remained unchanged. [Editor's note--the law school held its first class in December 1847; Inside Tulane will cover its sesquicentennial as that date approaches.]

Fast forward to May 17, 1997, when 275 men received diplomas from Tulane College, becoming the sesquicentennial year graduation class of Tulane's college of liberal arts and sciences for men. While this year's commencement ceremony was, in one respect, only one event in a year-long schedule of sesquicentennial happenings, making it a memorable event was a priority for Anthony Cummings, dean of Tulane College, and his office.

"We really did feel that we had to dress up commencement a little bit and make it extra special," explains Cummings. "I saw it as an opportunity to reflect publicly with the students on what this moment means in the history of the college--to have come 150 years through some of the most turbulent times in American history. No one could have possibly envisioned in 1847 what a different world this would be 150 years later, just as we can't envision what it will be like 150 years from now."

Dressing up commencement spawned a range of initiatives, from the decorative, such as stamping balloons with "Tulane College 1997 Sesquicentennial" and handing out commemorative medallion necklaces to graduates, to the more substantive, such as a commencement address by renowned heart surgeon and college alumnus Michael DeBakey ('30).

"We wanted first of all to attract the best possible speaker," Cummings says. "We thought it was important to find an alumnus, given the year. Fortunately, Dr. DeBakey agreed. He's certainly among our most distinguished alumni."

According to Cummings, using this year's graduation ceremony to celebrate the tradition of Tulane College is more than just an exercise in nostalgia. It represents another step in a process that began four years ago with the renaming of the College of Arts and Sciences as Tulane College--a process intended to clear up confusion among students over the structure of liberal arts at Tulane and build a positive, distinct identity for Tulane College among students and alumni.

Newcomb College has long benefited from a close relationship with alumnae, a relationship bolstered in part through the Sophie Newcomb name and the story behind the college's founding. Cummings says the sesquicentennial represented the perfect opportunity to emphasize and celebrate the identity of Tulane College. Sesquicentennial-year events kicked off in January with a "birthday party" for Tulane College on the University Center quad.

In April, the sesquicentennial was a theme of the annual Tulane Educational Conference. In August, freshman orientation will take a historic tone with Sander Gilman ('63), professor of German, history of science and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, as guest speaker.

For homecoming in September, Tulane College will host a sesquicentennial convocation weekend, including the conferring of medals on nine of the college's most distinguished alums; a panel discussion with previous winners of the William Wallace Peery Medal, the highest honor Tulane College bestows; and a convocation address by journalist and commentator Howard K. Smith ('36). The weekend will be rounded out by faculty lectures, student and alumni receptions, athletic events and the burying of a time capsule.

Although not an official sesquicentennial-year event, perhaps the most exciting recent happening at the college was the April kickoff of a $1.4 million renovation of the home of Tulane College, the Arts & Sciences Building. The building, renamed Robert C. Cudd Hall to honor the project's benefactor, will be restored to its original Dutch Gothic architectural style, including a three-sided open verandah and its original brick work.

More important, the building will be returned to its first purpose--a student commons. Cummings expects the building to play a great role in hosting events for the college.

"The building project is going to restore not only the architectural style of the building but also its function. It was the original commons, a place students can gather during the day for social--not only academic--events," Cummings says. "The building will have that function again. We'll have porches and the reception area. Students can arrive for events and gatherings, maybe even for food. An idea we have is maybe once a week to serve coffee and donuts between classes."

"The one theme in all the sesquicentennial events," Cummings summarizes, "is sharpening students' sense of identification with the college per se, so that their association is not only with the university but with the college, as well. Having our own building will contribute to that."

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