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Graduation: Why the Pomp and Circumstance?

25 April 2011 No Comment

Ian K. Wilson, UVU vice president for Academic Affairs

As Utah Valley University prepares for its 70th Commencement, which, for the first time ever, will include a full processional, many of us could probably use a crash course in academic ceremonies.

Why do those gowns look different? What is that mace used for? Why the Harry Potter robes?

First of all, let’s get our ceremonies straight:

Commencement – This ceremony is essentially a university-wide gathering in which degrees are conferred to candidates for graduation and an invited speaker offers a commencement address; the focus is on the graduating class as a whole.

Convocation – The term “convocation” means “gathering,” and is often used to describe the ceremonies of individual colleges and schools within a university in which students are presented with their degrees; the focus is on the individual graduates.

The particulars of these ceremonies vary from school to school, but most come from “An Academic Costume Code and An Academic Ceremony Guide.” This document, created in 1895 by several representatives of higher education, dictates a standardized set of guidelines for dress and procedure.

The most obvious manifestation of these guidelines is attire — though a cap and gown seems bare bones, the variations thereof are chock-full of symbolism.

Gowns – Gowns date back to the 12th century, when long robes were the daily attire of universities. Over the years those gowns have been dropped out of the daily rotation, but have their place in the cultures of religion, jurisprudence and academia.

Bachelor’s gowns are the simplest, with a straight-bottomed sleeve. Master’s gowns feature longer flaps on the backs of the sleeves, trailing below the hands. Ph.D. gowns are the most elaborate, featuring velvet trim on the front and the bell-shaped sleeves. The color of the trim can indicate a specific academic discipline. Speaking of color…

Colors – Faculty colors are used on hoods, robes, tassels and flags to denote areas of study. White, for example, means arts and humanities. Purple, the color of royalty, is used for law. Dark blue was adopted in 1986 to indicate a doctorate degree in any field.

Hoods – You can tell a lot about a graduate from his or her hood — it indicates school, degree and field of study. The longer the hood, the higher the degree. The colored lining of the hood reflects the school colors, while the colored borders indicate an area of study.

Caps and tassels – The history behind the mortarboard is pretty murky, but today they are worn by all degree-earners. (The only exception is the soft velvet tam that doctorate degree-holders often wear.) The pointed cap should be in the middle of the forehead, and the mortarboard should be positioned parallel to the ground. The tassel can either come in faculty colors or straight black, depending on the university. While the Academic Costume Code does not dictate the positioning of the tassel, it has become customary to place it on the right side before the degree, and move it to the left afterward.

Cords and stoles – There are several accessories that can be added to the regalia, including gold cords that are worn around the neck to denote “Honor” status, and satin souvenir stoles, such as the “stole of gratitude” given to the graduates’ parents. These are temporary pieces of the regalia, and, unlike the cap and gown, would not be worn again at any subsequent academic ceremonies.

Processional – The academic processional is a traditional ceremony at graduation exercises in which university dignitaries and students march together wearing traditional academic attire. This year the processional will begin at the Courtyard by the library. The processional will be led by John Balden, Faculty Senate president, who will carry the mace. He will be followed by several bagpipers, President Matthew S. Holland, Richard Portwood, the student body president, and then the graduates. Before entering the UCCU Center, the processional will pass through two lines of faculty, who will acknowledge the graduates and then join the processional.

Recessional – After the commencement program is completed, graduates and faculty will leave the UCCU Center, led by President Holland and university dignitaries.

Presidential Mace – The intimidating-looking mace is essentially an ancient weapon of war, used now to symbolize the power and authority of the university president. The mace can be used in various academic occasions, including commencement, convocations and presidential inaugurations.

Honorary Degrees – When a university wishes to recognize the contributions of an individual to society — be it in art, politics, science or other fields — or the contributions to the university itself, honorary degrees are bestowed. A school’s governing body, or a state board of regents, can nominate recipients for this recognition. The degree does not hold the same privilege or significance as a Ph.D., but is certainly a prestigious recognition.

Source: Academic Ceremonies, CASE 2005, April L. Harris

— Ian K. Wilson

Still wondering what something means? Leave your question in the “Comments” section and I’ll get to it.


SOURCE: Academic Ceremonies, PACE 2005, April L. Harris
An Academic Costume Code and An Academic Ceremony Guide

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