Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET on May 17, 2019.
It is a sacred academic tradition: Every year, before spring turns to summer, the relatives and loved ones of soon-to-be college graduates journey great distances and congregate in stadiums or on greens in order to … hear someone they don’t know recite the names of hundreds or even thousands of total strangers.
These gatherings are known as graduation ceremonies, and they have gotten really, really long. Commencement speakers tend to get the most attention during graduation season, but the widespread practice of reading every graduate’s name eats up a lot more time on ceremonies’ agendas. Given that it can take hours to get through every name, is this really a good use of everyone’s time?
The Atlantic reached out to the top 50 universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, and all 45 that responded said they read graduates’ names. Most do so at school-specific ceremonies—for example, engineering graduates will have their names read at the engineering-school ceremony—and not during a university-wide commencement.
The reasons for calling out every graduate’s name are simple: It’s a way for a college to honor a student personally. Even at an event that often feels rote and stale, there is room for genuine emotion, such as when a mother and son received their degrees at the very same ceremony earlier this month. And for first-generation college students as well as their families, the reading of a name at graduation can be the jubilant end to a long and uncertain journey.
The problem, though, is that everyone in the audience cares about one graduate’s brief moment of glory—and no one else’s. When the name of a loved one isn’t being called, the audience might as well be listening to someone read from a phone book.
George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University, suggested to me that graduation ceremonies are designed for long-term meaning-making, at the cost of short-term discomfort. He invoked a theory outlined by the Nobel-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman that describes how people retroactively assess “extended episodes.” The basic idea is that people’s memories of an experience are shaped most by its peak—the most emotionally intense part—and its ending. The peak of these ceremonies (which certainly qualify as “extended”) is usually the moment the graduate walks across the stage, and the ending is often a celebratory tossing of hats. According to this model, when audience members and participants reflect back on graduation ceremonies, memory should downplay the dullness and focus on the triumph, however brief.
Perhaps that dullness is even useful. “It’s true that these are excruciatingly boring,” Loewenstein says of graduation ceremonies. “But maybe the boredom serves a kind of function—that is, your child walking across the stage becomes a more peak moment against the backdrop of the boredom. That’s about as generous as I can be.”
Still, “it’s worth the wait,” says Loewenstein. “How often do you get such an extreme emotional experience of seeing your offspring bookending an important period of their life?”
There might be a long-term logic to graduation ceremonies, but that still leaves the discomfort of the present. The name of every student at Rice University, in Houston, used to be read at the school-wide commencement, but after the student population grew in the mid-2000s, this became unsustainable.
“It’s Houston, it’s May, we do our ceremony outside,” says Marcia O’Malley, a professor at Rice and its commencement’s chief marshal. “And as the number of students got larger and larger, our ceremony, which was starting at about 8 or 8:30 in the morning, was going until after 11 a.m. We were having some issues of students in these black robes sitting out in the sun. We were having EMS cases of people fainting. It’s a long time.”
The organizers of Rice’s commencement started analyzing video of past ceremonies to see what might be streamlined without compromising the “real sense of community” that O’Malley says characterizes Rice and arises in part from reading every graduate’s name. “There's only so much shortening you can do—you have to say the person's name and they've got to walk,” she observes. So, as of 2014, like at many other colleges, the names of Rice graduates are read at smaller ceremonies, but not at the university-wide commencement.*
Tyler Mullins is an expert on shortening graduation ceremonies. Mullins is the president of MarchingOrder, a 16-year-old company that provides nearly 300 schools with technology that, among other things, puts graduates’ names on a screen as they collect their diploma. This year, he estimates, about 800,000 students will walk across a stage at a school that uses a MarchingOrder service of some kind.
MarchingOrder talks with colleges about their graduation-ceremony needs. “In all cases,” Mullins says, “people do want to find out, ‘What can we do to make this—especially the name-announcement component, but really the entire ceremony—happen in a way that feels quick, doesn’t drag out, and doesn’t cause the audience to start getting restless?’”
Mullins told me that “there are only a few options” for speeding ceremonies up. One is to get rid of the processional (when graduates and faculty march in together) or to have it take place before the official start time of the ceremony. Another is to get rid of some speeches—say, from a chancellor or a dean. “Sometimes you have to make tough cuts,” Mullins says. “I think the magic number is two hours—anything two hours or under, people feel pretty good about. When you get to three hours, that's tough.”
The other important variable—the one Mullins can help tweak—is how quickly names are read. “Three seconds [per name] is a fast ceremony,” he says. “A lot of big schools, that's their target—they’ll say, ‘We want to get a grad every three seconds.’ Five seconds is a more comfortable pace.”
In Mullins’s experience, the setup most conducive to speed is using prerecorded names (so that there’s no fumbling of graduates’ name cards) and having students line up on only one side of the stage. Sometimes, schools with a large student body prefer two lines, which can make it easier to organize students offstage. Onstage, two lines can also make live reading go faster, but, Mullins says, it takes “a little more choreography” to ensure “nobody’s colliding or anything.” “With just one side,” he says, “you can set it up to really fire through.”
Some schools have happily reported to Mullins that they come in under time, clocking in at 2.7 seconds or 2.8 seconds per graduate. The fastest I came across in my research, though, is MIT, which told me it gets through roughly 2,400 students’ names in about an hour. That works out to a swift 1.5 seconds per name, probably the most efficient name-reading can get without being disrespectful. (MIT uses two lines and doesn’t prerecord names.) “Surveys of students and alumni consistently show that they greatly value our tradition of reading each name and of receiving their actual diploma from the president or provost onstage,” says Eric Grimson, an MIT professor and the chair of the school’s commencement committee.
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.