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April 29, 2016

To All To Whom These Presents May Come...

Since we are approaching Commencement, it seems a good time to consider one of its established elements - the diploma. As a document type, diplomas represent an interesting mix of continuity and change. The diploma’s purpose, tanglble testimony that a student has met the requirements of a course of study and that a degree was conferred by a university, has endured for centuries. Its form, however, has undergone some intriguing changes.

At Western Reserve, for most of the 19th century, the diplomas were in Latin, not English. The School of Medicine voted to adopt English for its diplomas in 1883.

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1842 Western Reserve College diploma - in Latin

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1884 Western Reserve University School of Medicine diploma - now in English

The size of our diplomas has varied, from approximately 9x12 inches to 18x24 inches. Generally, the size of the diploma has decreased in size over time. These size changes have not been universally applauded. In 1930, the Law School students objected on the basis that the smaller diploma, “is inadequate for the needs of a professional man.” In 1966, the Law and Dental School students objected both to the size and to the simplicity of the typography and decoration of the diplomas. In supporting the students, the Dean of the Law School, Louis A. Toepfer, wrote, “...a great many lawyers take special pride in having a handsome diploma which they display in their offices.” When the issue was brought to the School of Medicine students, the Associate Dean of Student Affairs, John L. Caughey, Jr. reported that, “the decision of the members [of Student Council] was that they didn’t really care enough to get involved.”

Parchment was used in the early days of WRU and Case, eventually replaced by paper. At various times, ribbons were affixed to the diplomas, as were colored and embossed seals.

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Ribbon on Western Reserve diploma from the 1870s and Seal on Case School of Applied Science diploma, 1895

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For many years, diplomas were rolled when presented to the graduates, such as these College for Women students in 1910.

One of my favorite diploma graphics is the picture of Leonard Case, Jr. that adorned the Case diplomas from the 1880s through the 1910s.

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Leonard Case, Jr. on an 1887 Case School of Applied Science diploma

After Federation in 1967, the question of what university’s name would appear on diplomas lingered for several years. Requests for post-1967 diplomas with pre-1967 university names were considered by the Board of Trustees on a case-by-case basis through much of the 1970s. In 1981 the Trustees approved a single diploma style and size to be used by all the schools.

Diplomas have lasting significance, both for students and the university. Some students are unable to attend Commencement to receive their diplomas personally. In spite of the best efforts of university staff, it can sometimes take awhile to deliver these diplomas to graduates. The Archives has documentation of successful efforts to unite diplomas and graduates decades after the degree was awarded. The longest such effort we have identified was the 1963 delivery of his diploma to a 1909 graduate.

Congratulations to all our 2016 graduates. Cherish those diplomas - you've earned them!

Posted by jmt3 at April 29, 2016 07:03 PM

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