Why does Penn hold a Baccalaureate Ceremony?

Dear Benny:
Every year, graduates are invited to attend Penn’s Baccalaureate Ceremony. I thought baccalaureate ceremonies occurred only at universities that have a religious affiliation. Why does Penn hold such an event?
—Cap and Gown

Dear Cap and Gown:
Like many customs connected to the traditions observed at graduation, the baccalaureate ceremony is thought to have origins that reach back to medieval Europe. Some say it started at Oxford University in the 1400s, when graduating students were required to deliver a sermon in Latin in order to receive their baccalaureate degrees.

At Penn, the first Baccalaureate Ceremony was held in 1865, the same year Class Day was introduced. Today, the event is an interfaith gathering of the graduating seniors and their families that is held the day before Commencement.

“Through brief remarks and speeches by President [Amy] Gutmann, the senior class president, and a guest speaker, as well as through readings and through song, aspects of the moral life and its relation to liberal education are addressed,” says Penn’s Chaplin, the Rev. Charles L. Howard. 

The Ceremony honors Penn’s cultural and religious diversity through readings and music from various religious traditions.

This year, the Baccalaureate speaker is Nipun Mehta, the founder of ServiceSpace, an incubator of projects that combine volunteerism with technology.

To accommodate all graduating seniors, their friends, and their families, two consecutive Baccalaureate Ceremonies will be held on May 13, at Irvine Auditorium, 34th and Spruce streets. The first is scheduled for 1:30 p.m., for students whose last names begin with the letters A-K. The second, for those whose last names being with L-Z, is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. For more information, visit the Commencement website at www.upenn.edu/commencement.

Originally published on May 10, 2012