The Convocation Address
The very first convocation address was given by our first head of history, Hermann Eduard von Holst, and was entitled “The Need of Universities in the United States.” Five of the first eleven convocation addresses at the University examined, in one manner or another, the nature of universities and their role in society.
Originally convocation speakers were often public figures, representatives of other colleges and universities, or the president of the University. On April 2, 1896, Serge Wolkonsky, Prince of the Russian Empire, delivered the convocation address. It was called “Memory and Responsiveness as Instruments of Culture.” On August 27, 1954, noted theologian H. Richard Niebuhr of Yale University Divinity School, delivered the address, “Theology – not Queen but Servant.”
Since 1970, all convocation addresses have been given by members of the University of Chicago faculty. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the University of Chicago Medical Center, on November 14, 1977, faculty member and Nobel Laureate Charles Brenton Huggins delivered the convocation address. His topic: “The Cultivation of Excellence.” Though he did not give the Convocation address, President Bill Clinton spoke at the June 1999 College convocation. In 2005, Cathy Cohen, Professor, Department of Political Science and the College and Director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, spoke on the topic: “Race, Politics, and the Costs of Compromise.”
The Power of Ideas
Since the beginning, the convocation address has shown a persistent focus on issues of substance rather than benign, and perhaps occasionally welcomed, advice for graduating students. Each address is, in one way or another, about the power of ideas and the central, essential, place they hold at the University of Chicago.