Class Day is like graduation, but not really (University Commencement, at which students are formally conferred their degrees, is held on a separate day). These celebrations, held for each of Columbia's schools, feature student speakers (usually class presidents and valedictorians or salutatorians, depending on the school) and keynote speakers (usually alumni), and an occasion for students to have their names called out, walk across the stage, and shake hands with the Dean and the president. Their existence forces students' parents to spend an extra day or two dealing with their children's commencement. The upshot is that the ceremonies are more intimate and personal. Both the Columbia College and SEAS ceremony includes a Parade of Classes.
The location of Class Days has shifted considerably over time, moving between indoor and outdoor locations. Columbia College Class Day was held in the University Gymnasium around 1907, on "the Green between Earl and Mines" in 1921, and in McMillan Theater in 1931. In 1938, Class Day was held on the Van Am Quadrangle. In 1943, ceremonies moved indoors again, to Brander Matthews Hall. Over the years, Class Day exercises have gradually migrated to South Lawn. However, Barnard's Class Days have often been held in Dodge Gym.
In 1944 due to "wartime difficulties," Class Day for Columbia College was held without cap and gown.
Although speeches have become the focal point of Class Day, in earlier years, prior to the establishment of the Academic Awards Ceremony, the focus was on distributing prizes. In 1941, for example, there were no designated speakers at Columbia College Class Day other than University President Butler, Dean Hawkes, and the valedictorian and salutatorian.
In subsequent years a Senior Banquet was held on the same day, during which students would hear from an invited speaker, but the integrated Class Day speaker tradition did not begin until the later decades of the 20th century.
Speakers at recent class days have stirred howls of complaint. Supposedly there is a rule the speaker must be an alumnus of their school, which accounts for Columbia's less famous speakers relative to our peer institutions. However, this rule has been ignored by CC when speakers such as novelist Ralph Ellison or Senator John McCain have agreed to speak, and does not apply to GS when the administration finds it convenient. Barnard does not have this rule.
In 1991, students circulated a petition hoping to disinvite 1968 protests leader Juan Gonzalez as speaker; Gonzalez spoke anyway. Among the complaints were that literally no one apart from the class president could identify who Gonzalez was when the choice was announced.
Matthew Fox, a star of TV's Lost, was the speaker for 2007, and was seen as an underwhelming or inappropriate choice for such a serious occasion, although his speech turned out well-received. These controversies generally involve petulant members of the senior class, who desire a meaningful close to their four year stint at the university, i.e. a charismatic intellectual celebrity.
Class Day speakers
Undergraduate School Speakers
- Part of James Russell's valedictory speech was delivered in ancient Armenian
- In 2010, the General Studies valedictorian, Brian Corman, plagiarized part of his speech from comedian Patton Oswalt
- In 1961, valedictorian John Vaio delivered the first Latin Valedictory at Columbia since 1901, while his classmates followed along with English translations.
- Exercises Today to Include Latin Valedictory Address, Columbia Spectator, 5 June 1961