May 14, 2008 — Thomas Jefferson's original plan for the University of Virginia did not provide for a commencement ceremony, or even degrees and diplomas — though early students petitioned the Board of Visitors for diplomas, at least in part to improve their opportunities for employment. The board took no action until 15 months after Jefferson's death, directing in October 1827 that plans for the first "Public Day" be made.
Thus, the University held its first Final Exercises in 1829. The lengthy ceremony staged in the Rotunda, included student orations and a recitation of the names of students receiving honors. (It wasn't until 1848 that the speaking was assigned to a single special guest.) There was little other fanfare, as suggested by this tongue-in-cheek comment from the 1887-88 student yearbook: "In the early period ... the lofty pleasure which attends marching up the central aisle of the Public Hall, and with dumb rapture receiving a fragment of parchment, had not been discovered."
The "public hall" mentioned above became the second venue for Finals, about 1853, when an annex containing the hall was completed on the north side of the Rotunda. The ceremony remained simple, with faculty and students wearing normal attire rather than caps and gowns.
It is unclear where Finals were held in the years immediately following the 1895 fire in which both the original Rotunda and its annex were destroyed. By 1902, however, Cabell Hall had been built at the south end of the Lawn, and Finals moved to the auditorium of the new building.
The academic procession, which serves as a hallmark of today's Final Exercises, did not begin until sometime after 1904, when Edwin Alderman became the University's first president. Lamenting the lack of pomp and circumstance, Alderman directed that graduating students and faculty members — wearing academic regalia — process from the newly rebuilt Rotunda down the Lawn to Cabell Hall.
By 1922, Final Exercises had moved to the new and larger McIntire Amphitheatre. With the exception of the war years, when smaller classes permitted Finals to be held in the Rotunda and in Cabell Hall, commencement exercises remained at the amphitheatre until 1953. That year, University President Colgate W. Darden Jr., moved the ceremony to the southern end of the Lawn, where Final Exercises continue to be held each May. Today, tens of thousands of parents, guests and faculty members watch as the students proceed down the Lawn.
Because the academic procession down the Lawn has become such an important rite of passage for graduating students, only the most inclement weather — thunder, lightning, high winds or other conditions that would make the outdoor ceremony unsafe — prompts Finals to be moved indoors to the John Paul Jones Arena.