Amid beautiful and fragrant flowers, smiling faces, with inspiring speeches and sweet music, Washington State University Saturday graduated. …
Wait a minute. Wasn’t that how the Spokane Chronicle described commencement in June 1897, when the then-Washington Agricultural College and School of Science let loose on the world its first graduates?
It’s easy to get confused when so many details remain unchanged between that first commencement and the centennial affair launched on Saturday.
To be sure, WSU’s first commencement didn’t have television monitors hanging from the rafters or a displayed text for the hearing impaired.
Nor did it have graduates “from around the state, around the nation and around the world,” to use President Sam Smith’s words.
Among the honored Saturday were 61 “extended degree graduates” who learned almost entirely off-campus via mail, telephone, computer and video.
But a comparison of the 1897 ceremony and Saturday’s centennial commencement evokes several striking similarities between the old cow college and the current Moo U.
The first commencement was set amid a backdrop of financial difficulty and cries of underpaid faculty.
Sound familiar? The school is scouring the nation for donors to Campaign WSU, a $250 million-or-so fund drive aimed at shoring up dwindling state and federal funding. And just last Friday WSU Provost Tom George announced the school will be pushing for salary increases for faculty and staff in the upcoming legislative session. WSU faculty make 12.4 percent less than their peers at other universities and have had only one raise in four years.
Then as now, administrators were circumspect about student romance. Turn-of-the-century administrators “were shocked to see students holding hands,” according to William Stimson’s history of WSU student life.
Today, WSU dorm residents are still barred from having overnight guests of the opposite sex, in spite of repeated requests to the university powers that be.
The bulk of WSU’s students in 1897 were actually preparatory students who needed a year or so of polishing before undertaking a rigorous college-level work load. Some of today’s faculty concede they’d prefer better prepared Cougars.
Of course, a peek at the numbers reveals a few changes over the years.
The first commencement at the college featured eight graduates - three in engineering, one in biology, two in economics and two in English. Saturday’s ceremony awarded more than 3,200 degrees - 2,730 baccalaureate, 367 master’s and 118 doctorates - in some 120 different fields.
The three female graduates in 1897 reflected a rule that “no discrimination shall be made in respect of race, sex, political opinion or religious belief.” The school is still working on creating a non-discriminatory campus, but with some difficulty, as a mounting number of complaints suggests. Minority students are graduating in greater numbers than ever. And the school has a Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Student Association.
The first graduates paid no tuition. This year’s graduates paid $3,024 for the school year.
The campus around the time of the first commencement had about five buildings surrounded by grass and mud. Now it has 142 buildings with a replacement value of $1.23 billion.
President Enoch A. Bryan in 1897 received no salary, earning his keep by teaching four classes and acting as director of the agricultural experiment station. Today, Sam Smith pulls down $134,675.28 a year, plus a deferred annuity of $50,000.
The 1897 commencement ceremony, held before what the Chronicle called “a vast throng of people, far beyond the capacity of the hall,” foreshadowed its successors.
Then-Gov. John R. Rogers gave a speech on “the school of life.”
Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen, spoke Saturday to a throng of 4,500 in the Beasley Coliseum:
“Graduation is clearly one of the most significant passages of your life. But it’s just a starting point. It’s the beginning of a life-long journey.”
President Bryan, in a speech the Chronicle called “clear, forcible, eloquent and polished,” told students they are “indebted to the state” and even more indebted to their parents.
Smith struck the same chord Saturday as he pointed out that “behind every student is an important supporting cast” and asked for a round of applause for “all the Cougar moms” and other family members.
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