Commencement Traditions Reach Back Centuries

Friday, May 11, 2012

As students don their caps and gowns, align their tassels and prepare for the Commencement procession, they are participating in a generations old ceremony. From the academic regalia to the mace that is carried, Fairmont State University’s Commencement is steeped in tradition.

One of the oldest Commencement traditions involves the carrying of the mace, or wooden staff. The mace bearer carries the mace in the procession, preceding the president and the faculty, both entering and leaving the ceremony. The office of mace bearer is purely ceremonial and derives from the medieval times in England when an official was taking office or opening his court and needed a bodyguard. Then the mace, a formidable weapon, was held ready to protect the person of the dignitary.

This year’s mace bearer is the 2012 William A. Boram Award for Teaching Excellence recipient, Dr. Sharon Smith. The award is named for former Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of English, Dr. William A. Boram. The Fairmont State University Mace was crafted from native cherry wood and features the Seal of the University.

“It is my honor and privilege to carry the ceremonial mace and participate in its storied tradition.  I am grateful to honor the legacy of Dr. William A. Boram and to have the opportunity to represent the wisdom of the past, the challenge of the present and the hope for the future,” Smith said.

The history of academic dress reaches far back into the early days of the oldest universities. Gowns are rumored to have been worn for necessary warmth in the unheated buildings frequented by medieval scholars.

The hoods worn by masters and doctors originally served to cover the head until that purpose was given to the skull cap. American colleges and universities adopted a uniform code of academic dress in 1895. This code was revised in 1932 by a Committee of the American Council of Education and, with minor revisions, it has been followed since that time. Appropriate sections of the code follow:

  • Gowns: Color: black. Trimmings - None for the bachelor’s or master’s degrees. For all academic purposes, including trimmings of doctorate gowns, edging of hoods, and tassels of caps the colors associated with the different subjects are as follows: Arts, Letters, Humanities, white; Commerce, Accounting, Business, drab; Economics, copper; Education, light blue; Science, citron; Fine Arts, brown; Music, pink; Nursing, apricot; Philosophy, dark blue; Engineering, orange.
  • Hoods: Color: black. Linings - The hoods are lined with the official color or colors of the college or university conferring the degree; more than one color is shown by division of the field color in a variety of ways, such as chevron or chevrons, equal division, etc.
  • Caps: Black mortar boards with a long tassel.

When wearing academic regalia, participants always wear their caps in academic processions and during the ceremony of conferring degrees. Men may remove their caps during prayer, the playing of the National Anthem and the Alma Mater, and at other specified times, such as during the commencement address. It is traditional that all such actions be done in unison.

For those receiving master’s degrees, there is no greater honor than the hooding ceremony. The hooding ceremony at Fairmont State University signifies a scholarly and personal achievement. As chief academic officer, the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs summons forth the master candidate. In a symbolic gesture, graduates remove their mortarboards just prior to being hooded. The Dean of the academic school in which the student attains the degree, places the hood on the student as a symbol of passage from student to “master.” Among the first to recognize this rite of passage is the President of the University.

According to scholarly accounts, the tassel serves no distinct purpose although many universities and colleges have adopted the tradition of graduates beginning the ceremony with their tassels on the right side and then shifting them to the left after receiving their degree.

About the photo: Dr. Ken Millen-Penn, the 2011 recipient of the William A. Boram Award was the mace carrier during a past Commencement.