Schools themselves probably like it too: “The university of course is concerned about future donations, and future donations are going to be based on memories,” Loewenstein, the behavioral economist, notes. Besides, it would probably be hard to let go of a tradition that seems to date back to the earliest days of American colleges. When I asked Roger Geiger, a historian of higher education at Penn State, how long schools had been reading graduates’ names, he told me, “I assume it’s forever.” (Other scholars I spoke with suggested that name-reading, like other academic rituals, could have been derived from European traditions.)
In earlier eras, the practice wasn’t so burdensome: American universities used to be tiny. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Geiger says, the total number of students at a college was “rarely more than 100.” Even a larger school at that time would have had a graduating class of 50 or so students.
A spokesperson for Northwestern University said the school believes that names were read at its first commencement ceremony in 1851. There were only “five young gentlemen” graduating that year, according to a historical account, so the name-reader really could have taken his time.
American high schools, also small for much of their history, have probably been reading names at graduation since they were founded, too. "The reason why it was perfectly reasonable to imagine you could read everyone’s name is that so few students actually graduated,” says William Reese, a professor of educational-policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. According to Reese, only 6 percent of American adolescents in 1890 are estimated to have attended high school, and only a quarter of attendees actually graduated. Given how rare it was get a high-school diploma, the least schools could do was read people’s names.
Reading out names is not overly time-consuming at most high schools these days, but colleges’ student bodies have grown at a much faster clip. “Things go up substantially with the GI Bill—enrollments would often double and triple with the influx of veterans,” says John Thelin, an education scholar at the University of Kentucky. This midcentury jump, Thelin says, made it hard for colleges to treat graduating classes in the “unified, intimate” way that they used to. And colleges kept growing: In 1940, about 200,000 bachelor’s degrees were conferred nationwide; by 1970, that figure was approaching 1 million. Which is to say, colleges have grown so much that it makes sense some of them might hire someone like Tyler Mullins to keep an eye on the clock at graduation.
Commencement has changed in other ways too. Geiger and Thelin both note that in the early centuries of American higher education, one common component of graduation festivities was hours-long oratorical showcases, in which students recited speeches they’d written, sometimes in Greek or Latin. (Classes were often suspended in seniors’ final term so that they could prepare for these and other graduation proceedings.)
This means that at graduation ceremonies of the past, people had to listen, for hours on end, to strangers delivering speeches in languages few audience members understood. Maybe today’s attendees don’t have it so bad.
Amal Ahmed contributed reporting to this article.
* This article originally stated that Rice University reads students' names at school-specific ceremonies.