Convocation, an assembly of persons called together for a meeting, has been held as a formal welcoming event during two periods in the history of the University: during the Jorgensen administration (1935 to 1962) and a modern revival which began in 1988. At other times, a welcoming assembly or freshman week welcome was held.
The first assembly was the formal public opening of the Storrs Agricultural School on October 7, 1881. Most of the 13 enrolled students had arrived by September 28, when the fall term was set to begin.The public opening nine days later included townspeople of Mansfield, “a delegation from the Willimantic Farmer’s Club, and citizens from various parts of the State.” The school had a close association with the Storrs Congregational Church in those days, and the event was held in the old church building (the existing church was built in 1927).
But records at the University archives do not indicate what, if any, welcoming event was held in the first decades of Storrs Agricultural School, later known as Storrs Agricultural College and then Connecticut Agricultural College.
Up until the 1940s, enrollment was less than 1,000 (less than 500 before the 1920s), so an opening assembly could easily accommodate the entire student body and faculty in one location. There is some evidence of a welcoming event in 1934 called Convocation. It’s not certain who presided, although it is likely it was the president of the college at that time, Charles McCracken.
What is clear from the archival records is that it was during the presidency of Albert N. Jorgensen that the fall convocation became institutionalized.
On November 7, 1935, a month after he became president of Connecticut State College, Jorgensen faced the student body for the first time and a long tradition of fall convocations began.
“The opportunity of meeting the student body is one to which I have eagerly looked forward,” began the 36-year old educator, who later often referred to convocation as one of only two times – together with commencement – that a college president gets to speak to students. “I appreciate more than I can tell you your welcome to Connecticut State College … In a very real sense, I am to be regarded as a newly registered freshman,” he said.
“I know there is expectation in the air … For each of us knows that a new personality will determine to some substantial extent the orientation of the college for many years,” he said.
In his short remarks, Jorgensen outlined his philosophy of education, gave a sketch of his background, and pledged to do his best.
From his brief – remarks – possibly 10 to 12 minutes in 1935, Jorgensen expanded his speeches to between 40 minutes and an hour in subsequent years, extolling the virtues of public education, often summarizing the growth and development of the college, and urging loyalty to the students’ alma mater.
In his convocation address dated September 27, 1938, Jorgensen spoke with pride about the growth of the college.
“Yours is the largest class of new students in the history of the college – reaching approximately 335 freshmen and 60 transfers,” he told the incoming Class of 1942.
He was able to make a similar statement about the incoming class in his 1939 address, also letting students know that millions of dollars in new construction “will be available for use during the coming year.” That construction included Whitney, Wood, and Manchester Halls, Hall Dorm and the Castleman engineering building.
Also in his 1939 address, Jorgensen proudly proclaimed to students, “what is probably most significant in the development of this institution is the fact that for the first time in the history of Connecticut we have a State University.” Earlier that year, on July 1, Gov. Raymond Baldwin had signed legislation changing Connecticut State College to the University of Connecticut.
There is a poignant tone to Jorgensen’s remarks for the fall of 1941. Three months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into world war, he said “This … is a moment when we reappraise our hopes and our ideals, when we can ask intimately what we will make of ourselves during the years on this campus.” Jorgensen went on to discuss the prospects for war and the need for peace. His 1941 address was titled “Responsibility for Peace.” His address to students one year later was “The University’s Role in the War.”
As the country was to enter its fourth, and, unknown to all, its final year of involvement in the war, Jorgensen in 1944 likened the annual convocation to the induction ceremony that so many wartime students experienced as they entered the armed services.
As the University grew, it became increasingly difficult to hold an opening event that would accommodate the entire student body and faculty. In the 1960s, a welcoming address by President Homer Babbidge to incoming freshmen became part of Freshman Week but, no longer compulsory, it drew fewer and fewer members of each new class.
A formal welcoming event billed as “Convocation” was re-established by John T. Casteen III, who served as UConn’s president from 1985 to 1990.
When Casteen gave an address the evening of September 1, 1987, on the Student Union Mall, it drew fewer than 50 people. Convocation in 1988, by contrast, drew hundreds. Rescheduled to follow the back-to-campus picnic on the Student Union Mall, it featured Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel as the main speaker.
Other convocation speakers from the late 1980s and early 1990s include English professors Sam Pickering (1989) and Regina Barreca (1991), children’s book author Maurice Sendak (1990), and then-Hartford Urban League president Esther Bush (1993).
Since the late 1990s, Convocation has been part of the Husky WOW program, welcoming incoming freshmen, transfer students, and their families, at the start of the fall semester.
By Mark J. Roy [This article first appeared in the August 31, 1998 issue of the UConn Advance.]