Biography and History

Princeton held its first commencement in the Newark, New Jersey “meetinghouse.“ Upon moving to Princeton in 1756 commencement services were held in Nassau Hall until 1764 when they were moved to the First Presbyterian Church. In 1892 they were moved to Alexander Hall and in 1922 moved a final time to outside the front of Nassau Hall, where they are still held today. In the event of rain, commencement is moved to Jadwin Gymnasium. Observed in the fall until 1843, the celebration was moved to the spring in 1844.

Commencement activities continue for nearly a week, beginning with alumni returning to campus for alumni/faculty forums on the Thursday afternoon before commencement. Saturday afternoon the annual alumni P-Rade occurs, as well as class reunions usually held outdoors under tents. On Sunday students and their families attend a baccalaureate service in the morning, the president's garden party in the afternoon and a concert in the evening. Monday is devoted to Class Day exercises, departmental receptions and a senior dance. Formal commencement exercises occur on Tuesday. An academic procession to Nassau Hall begins the festivities, followed by an invocation, the conferring of bachelor degrees, recognition of honors graduates, the valedictory speech, the conferring of master, doctor and honorary degrees, remarks by the president, and the singing of “Old Nassau.”

(Source: A Princeton Companion, by Alexander Leitch)

Source: From the finding aid for AC115

Biography and History

"Princeton has developed so much in recent years,” read the statement in the 27 October 1900 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, "that, like many other American institutions of learning, a University Secretary is now required.” This announcement reflected the administrative changes that had been deemed necessary to better manage the daily affairs of a rapidly expanding and developing institution. To date, six individuals have served as secretary: Charles McAlpin (1901-1917), Varnum Lansing Collins (1917-1936), Alexander Leitch (1936-1966), Jeremiah Finch (1966-1974), Thomas Wright, (1974-2004), and Robert K. Durkee (2004–). The secretary has charge of general correspondence of the University and is responsible for arranging Commencement and other convocations.

With the assistance of the registrar, the secretary is responsible for the preparation, and has custody of, all diplomas. In addition, the secretary has the custody of the University seal and affixes it to any documents requiring the signature of the secretary as an officer of the Corporation. The secretary also assists the clerk of the Board of Trustees in the performance of the clerk's duties and, in the absence or disability of the clerk, performs such duties of the clerk as the Board or the president may designate. The secretary also serves as the senior adviser to the president and oversees the official convocations of the University such as Commencement. The office also has administrative responsibility for the Council of the Princeton University Community.

Charles McAlpin, Princeton's first secretary, was a member of an old Mahopac, New York family connected prominently with the industrial and social development of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. When he graduated from the prestigious Exeter Academy in 1884, McAlpin joined Princeton's class of 1888. As an undergraduate he was a member of the Ivy Club, joined the baseball team in his junior year, and was president of the Dramatic Association during his senior year. Throughout his life he continued his affiliation with Princeton affairs, serving as chair of class committees and, most notably, as University secretary from 1901-1917. Elected unanimously by the Board of Trustees to the post on 13 December 1900 for a yearly salary of $2,500, the Princeton Alumni Weekly noted that the job of secretary was to "coordinate the various departments, keep in touch with the outside world, and many other things which modern life and the modern methods of higher education require.” In the same year, McAlpin received an honorary A.M. from Princeton. After his retirement in 1917, McAlpin devoted most of his time to charities, serving as trustee and director of many philanthropic institutions. In an alumni survey he noted that his favorite pastime was "collecting engraved portraits of Washington,” and at the time of his death in 1942 he had amassed one of the best-known and most complete series of Washington prints and engravings in the country.

Princeton's next secretary, Varnum Lansing Collins, would leave an indelible mark not only on the office itself, but also on the way the history of the University was preserved. Born in Hong Kong, Collins obtained his education in Paris and London before coming to Princeton as a member of the class of 1892. As an undergraduate, he was editor of The Nassau Literary Magazine, president of the Cliosophic Society, leader of the Glee Club, and a member of the Triangle Club. After receiving an Honorary A.M. from Princeton in 1895, Collins worked in the University Library as a reference librarian until he joined the faculty of the Department of Modern Languages in 1906. He was made full professor six years later and assumed the position of clerk of the faculty—a position he held until 1935. Collins also served as the secretary of the Graduate Council from 1917 until 1927 and was an instrumental figure during the years that the Council successfully conducted its $2,000,000 campaign for faculty salaries. In 1917 he became University secretary and served in this pivotal role for nineteen years. When ill health forced Collins to retire in 1936, the Board accepted his resignation "with regret” and named him Historiographer to Princeton University. Collins had long been recognized as the foremost authority on Princeton history, and authored a number of books on the subject, notably a biography of President John Witherspoon, a history of Princeton, and a guide to the town and the University. His love and knowledge of Princeton led to the grassroots development of the University Archives. Named editor of the General Catalogue/Biographical Catalogue in 1906, he compiled files on alumni and on possible, doubtful, and fraudulent "alumni” that have been gold mines for researchers ever since. As secretary he began what is now known as the Historical Subject File (HSF), an enormously valuable (and still growing) cache of Princeton history, lore, and trivia.

Filling Collins's shoes was not an easy prospect, and the Board passed the baton of service to Alexander Leitch. As a Princeton undergraduate, Leitch was a member of the lacrosse squad, a member of the Terrace Club, and served on the staff of The Daily Princetonian for three years. Leitch enjoyed a long period of service to Princeton that began immediately after graduation in 1924. He served for one year as the director of the Bureau of Student Appointments and Student Employment, before being appointed director of the newly created Department of Public Information. He became one of the right-hand men of University President John G. Hibben, and in 1928 was appointed assistant to the president, a post he continued to hold under Edward Duffield, acting president in 1932-33, and President Harold Dodds. As secretary he oversaw a wide range of administrative responsibilities, including supervising official correspondence and publications, providing essential services for the University's Board of Trustees, and arranging Commencements and special convocations. The staging of the dedication of the Woodrow Wilson School building, at which President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke, topped off his final year at Princeton. Upon his retirement at age 65, Leitch began working on what would become A Princeton Companion, an assemblage of 400 alphabetically arranged articles on Princeton life and tradition. Of the work, Leitch remarked that while "older people sometimes write their memoirs to analyze the past and philosophize about it,” he was writing not his own memoir, but Princeton's. "Writing them has been a good way of enriching myself because I'm borrowing from a great institution.”

Princeton's fourth secretary was not an alumnus, but he had strong ties to the University. Jeremiah Finch, who graduated from Cornell with a B.A. in 1931 and a Ph.D. in 1936, had been a member of Princeton's faculty in the Department of English since 1936 and had held the office of Dean of the College from 1955 until 1961. As Dean, Finch was responsible for undergraduate programs of study as well as the administration of various services and offices concerned with the academic development of undergraduates. Finch was a former chair of both the Committee on Examinations and Standing and the University Council on Athletics. As executive secretary of the Princeton Program for Servicemen, Finch was also very involved with the readjustment to university life of more than 1000 undergraduates whose studies had been interrupted by war service. As University secretary, Finch became one of the six officers of the Corporation, and had oversight over all publications and the general correspondence of the University.

Thomas H. Wright succeeded Finch as secretary in 1974. Wright, who majored in the Special Program in the Humanities, received his A.B. from Princeton in 1962, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. After a year at Cambridge University as a Keasbey Scholar, he attended Harvard Law School and then went into private practice with the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington and Burling. He then served for three years as assistant general counsel to the Ford Foundation in New York before joining the Princeton administration as General Counsel in 1972. In 1990, after serving as both secretary and general counsel, he gave up the responsibilities of the latter and was promoted to the position of vice president and secretary. In this capacity he served as a senior adviser to the president, provided administrative support for the Board of Trustees, and oversaw the official convocations of the University such as Commencement. His office also had administrative responsibility for the Council of the Princeton University Community. In addition, Wright also has supervised the offices of the general counsel and the vice president for campus life. Effective with his retirement in 2004, those offices report directly to the president. The Board of Trustees designated Wright as vice president and secretary emeritus upon his retirement.

Robert K. Durkee, Princeton University's vice president for public affairs, succeeded Wright in the office of secretary in 2004. Durkee, a member of Princeton's class of 1969, joined the University administration in the spring of 1972 as assistant to the president and, after a year on leave to serve as executive assistant to the president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Universities, was appointed vice president for public affairs in 1978. In this capacity he oversaw the offices of the Alumni Council, communications, community and state affairs, and government affairs. Durkee has served as a close adviser to Princeton presidents William G. Bowen, Harold Shapiro, and Shirley Tilghman. He also has served on and staffed several trustee committees and has worked closely with the Board for more than 30 years.

Source: From the finding aid for AC190

Biography and History

In 1946 the University unveiled a memorial to those students who had been lost during the Second World War. Consisting of a bronze covered book with a page honoring each student who had perished overseas, the memorial was displayed in the atrium of Nassau Hall among memorials to student casualties of prior wars. The memorial was designed by school of architecture professor Jean Labatut, and a ceremony was held at the date of its unveiling.

Source: From the finding aid for AC274

  • Princeton University Commencement Records. 1748-2016 (inclusive).

    Call Number: AC115

    The Commencement Records contain programs, bulletins, announcements and newspaper clippings which document commencement activities from 1763 to the present. All files are arranged chronologically by year. In addition there are separate series consisting of bound programs, electrical broadcast transcriptions, bound commencement notices, oversize material, and audio recordings of various commencement, class day, and baccalaureate activities.

  • Office of the Secretary Records. 1853-2007 (inclusive), 1901-1985 (bulk).

    Call Number: AC190

    This collection chronicles the administrative responsibilities and activities of the secretaries of the University. Included are correspondence, memoranda, and notes concerning committee activities. Also included are press releases, discussions pertaining to trustee matters, scholarship information, and biographical files on honorary degree recipients.

  • Nassau Hall War Memorial records. 1946-1950 (inclusive).

    Call Number: AC274

    In 1946 the University unveiled a memorial to those students who had been lost during the Second World War in Nassau Hall. The records document the planning and execution of the memorial including pictures, preliminary lists of honorees, correspondence with parents and campus groups, and programs from the memorial's unveiling ceremony.