Ask KU alumni about their favorite KU traditions, and inevitably the walk down the Hill at Commencement will rank near the top. Chancellor Robert E. Hemenway famously remarked in nearly every one of his Commencement addresses that “the walk is the ceremony,” and all who have witnessed this unique spectacle agree that the winding procession down Mount Oread is not only beautiful to behold, it has become a cherished rite of passage for Jayhawks culminating their KU careers.
Fondly remembered by alumni, the walk down the Hill has been celebrated at KU with great pomp and pageantry for nearly a century, making it difficult to imagine a KU Commencement ceremony before this famous tradition.
At his final Commencement in 2009, former Chancellor Hemenway summarized the experience best. “Today, you have joined graduates in the University’s most time-honored ritual, one that binds Jayhawks together, that attaches them as friends with an emotional glue that never breaks. As we say every year, the walk is the ceremony. You have to walk before you can fly. The walk prepares Jayhawks for flight.”
2003: Chancellor Hemenway at Commencement
Founded with grand fanfare and lofty expectations in 1865, the University of Kansas was little more than a preparatory school offering a few college classes in its early days. As a result, it took more than four years for its first graduates to earn their degrees.
On June 11, 1873, KU conferred its first degrees at a formal ceremony inside the brand new and barely finished University Hall. The building, the most modern and finest of its kind on any college campus, would later be known for the chancellor who championed its construction and presided over that first Commencement ceremony, John Fraser.
Although KU’s first graduates did not walk down the Hill, KU’s commencement has always featured a procession. At KU’s first Commencement in 1873, the walk was atop the Hill, starting just south of what is now Spooner Hall toward University Hall, positioned just west of present-day Fraser. Around 1897, the graduates adopted the practice of donning academic regalia, including caps and gowns.
When Robinson Gymnasium was completed in 1907, with a larger space for convening a growing class of graduates, the procession moved with graduates gathering at Fraser Hall and continuing west to Robinson, where Wescoe is currently located.
1913: Commencement at Robinson gymnasium
By 1921, plans were being made to construct a memorial stadium on the site of McCook field, and in 1923, organizers decided to try an outdoor ceremony. A giant tent was erected near the new stadium, however the ceremony proved so hot that the tent-covered Commencement would never be repeated.
1923: The infamous commencement tent
In 1924, Commencement exercises were held for the first time at Memorial Stadium located at the foot of the Hill. Graduates walked from Strong Hall down Mount Oread into the stadium, and the tradition continues to this day.
1950s: Commencement as the Campanile is under construction
In the 1950s, KU graduates added to the tradition by walking through the new World War II Memorial Campanile. With the tower nearing completion–yet still clad with scaffolding–enthusiastic seniors found it too difficult to resist and became the first graduates to walk through the Campanile. The symbolic act of walking through Campanile has signaled the transformation from KU student to graduate ever since.
To learn more about Commencement, including the history of class banners, honorary degrees, and the special experience for Big and Baby Jays, read our full feature, The Walk.
For the students who play Big Jay and Baby Jay, their special KU experience is one big secret. The students are told to tell as few people as possible their identity, leading to some awkward questions about their whereabouts on game days.
The identity of the students behind the masks are never publicly revealed. You can’t look them up on any website, and there’s no trace of their mascot exploits on social media.
But when Commencement comes, the graduating seniors get their one day to share with the world the activity that made them both a campus icon and completely nameless.
Laura Ballard, d’08, g’09, spent three of her four years at KU cheering for the Jayhawks from the sidelines as Baby Jay. As a sophomore, a graduating senior explained to her the tradition of wearing the boots for the walk down the hill.
“One of the first rules I learned as a mascot was to never be partially dressed in the suit – it ruins the ‘magic’ of the mascot,” Ballard said. “That’s when it hit me how truly special Commencement is. We spend our mascot career doing our best to perform anonymously, and graduation is the one time when we can be both Baby Jay and ourselves.”
“I overheard lots of people commenting on my shoes. A few thought it was a random way to stand out in the crowd, but I heard many exclaim, ‘She must be Baby Jay!’ I was really proud of all I had accomplished at KU as a student and a member of the Spirit Squad, so it felt good to be recognized. I was even asked to take a few pictures with random students, which actually felt very normal since I posed in many pictures with random people as a mascot.”
To learn more about Commencement, including the history of class banners, honorary degrees, and when the walk through the Campanile got started, read our full feature, The Walk.
The class banner tradition dates back to the first Commencement in 1873. Since then, students have lead their graduating class down the hill with banners designed by the Board of Class Officers. A collection of class banners is available for viewing in the Kansas Union.
For Board of Class Officers member Briana McDougall, ’11, Commencement led to “long discussions about what the banner should say” for the class motto, before settling on “Rooted in the Blue, Towering Toward the New.”
“We also got to take photos with the chancellor in her office before Commencement & sat on stage during the ceremony,” McDougall said. “It was a great honor to be able to represent the class & present our motto to the university.”
Jason Fried, c’14, served on the Board of Class Officers, and was chosen to carry the class banner down the hill. “Looking back, it was a great moment. It was definitely something that my parents and relatives were proud of.”
To learn more about Commencement, including the history of the ceremony, honorary degrees, and the special experience for Big and Baby Jays, read our full feature, The Walk.
Speakers you likely won’t hear at a University of Kansas Commencement ceremony: Chance the Rapper, Oprah Winfrey, or Michael Bloomberg, all of whom have been tapped to speak at commencement events around the country this year.
KU’s Commencement ceremony traditionally features speeches from the university chancellor, the Kansas Board of Regents chair, and the KU Alumni Association chair, and an award presented to extraordinary leaders.
In 2012, under Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little, the university began awarding honorary degrees. The honor replaced distinguished citations after a petition to the Board of Regents.
The honorary degree is the highest honor bestowed by the university and is awarded to individuals of notable intellectual, scholarly, professional or creative achievement, or service to humanity.
The nomination process opens to members of the university community and the general public each year in March. The Chancellor’s Honorary Degree Committee then forwards several nominees to the chancellor for consideration. The following October, the Chancellor submits nominees to the Kansas Board of Regents for approval, and the recipients are honored at KU’s Commencement ceremony in May.
2012: The inaugural recipients of honorary degrees; Alan Mulally, e’68, g’69, president and CEO of Ford Motor Co. and keynote speaker; former FDIC chair Sheila Bair, c’75, l’78; former Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, ’45; and renowned composer Kirke L. Mechem.
To learn more about Commencement, including the history of the walk down the hill, class banners, and the special experience for Big and Baby Jays, read our full feature, The Walk.