Graduation is a wonderful thing: celebrating the achievement of students, admitting them to degrees and marking one of life’s milestones. For young undergraduates, this is a part of a series of transitions into adulthood, for older students it can be a change in direction. Graduation comes with trappings; the mix of a special formality in a communal setting.
As graduation has all these trappings, it is often the showcase for the Academic Registrars’ art. This is because there’s no right way to do a graduation. Different universities do it differently. There’s an inheritance from older universities, but the university can decide itself. You can do it in a hall, or a church or a stadium. You can do it with speeches, or songs or poems. You can make it traditional or modern (do have a look at DMU’s ceremonies).
I think that with a ceremony it’s nice if everyone does broadly the same. So it’s nicer if everyone wears a gown and is smart (within some sensible conventions). There’s a debate about the cost of gown hire, but no real requirement for dressing up beyond that, although the debate on formality will run and run. There are other debates that run and run too…
Rules on Academic Dress
Universities have regulations regarding their academic dress, which set out the gowns, caps and hoods, and how these are to be worn at different ceremonies. These are internally consistent at a university’s own ceremony, but one of the excitements comes with staff wearing the academic dress of different universities.
Take hats as an example. Some universities have banished the hats for graduating students. While Leeds specifies hats in its regulations, students on taught courses don’t wear them.
Those being awarded diplomas, first degrees and masters degrees at the University’s degree ceremonies wear academic dress: they do not, through long established University custom and practice, wear the cap (mortarboard) prescribed as part of full academic dressUniversity of Leeds: General Regulations: Academic Dress
Graduates of St Andrews don’t wear the hats that have traditionally been defined in their academic dress, including the distinctive John Knox Cap for those with doctorates. That doesn’t, I contend, mean that staff mustn’t wear hats at other universities’ graduations.
Hoods are another example. Traditional forms of doctoral dress have had different definitions, where the hood was only worn when the graduate was not wearing the coloured gown. Compare these versions from Leeds’ regulations
PhD Black Master’s gown with PhD Hood
Full Academic Dress
PhD gown without hood
Doctors: black Master’s gown with appropriate Doctor’s hood
Full Academic Dress
Doctors: appropriate Doctor’s gown, hood and cap
At their graduation Leeds PhDs now wear the green gown, green hood and a hat. Oxford DPhils aren’t so lucky, their full academic dress is the scarlet robe and hat. Given the variety of occasions that academic dress can be worn at Oxford, there are seven variations for holders of doctoral degrees (subfusc being the regulated suit and tie worn underneath)
Forms:Regulations relating to Academic Dress made by the Vice-Chancellor, as Authorised by Council
1. Black gown (laced, except for DD)
2. Black gown and hood
3. Black gown, hood, square (or for women, a soft cap if desired), and subfusc
4. Convocation habit (black gown, hood and sleeveless cloak [chemir], square (or for women, a soft cap if desired), subfusc, and bands
5. Scarlet robe and appropriate cap
6. Scarlet robe with subfusc and appropriate cap (Full Academic Dress for D.Phil.s)
7. Scarlet robe with subfusc and bands and appropriate cap (Full Academic Dress for Higher Doctors)
Armed with this list you can spot the mistakes in Morse/Lewis/Endeavor. The good news, for simpler universities, is that Oxford DPhils can be provided with both scarlet robe and hood and wear them together. It’s your university’s rules – they don’t have to wear subfusc either.
Making your own traditions
You don’t have to stick with how its been done before (really – do look at DMU’s ceremonies), there’s always a chance to tweak things. At NTU we have a new University Hall across the road from our main buildings, which meant we reimagined a number of things about graduation. As an example, we have the procession forming a guard of honour at the end and applauding the graduates across the road. It has a practical function, but it’s also one of the parts that people like most. It’s a tradition now.
Make your graduation ceremonies your own. Embrace traditions, but remember that they’re just things that someone thought up once, so don’t be a prisoner to them. Once it was a tradition to have the national anthem at ceremonies – does anyone still do that?