Gaudeamus igitur

All this week Robert Gordon University is holding its summer graduation ceremonies. I have always enjoyed these events, in all of the universities at which I have worked. In Trinity College Dublin they were (and, I believe, are) entirely in Latin; and the Provost has no active role at all, and does not speak (in any language). The University of Hull matched TCD for formality, though in the vernacular; well, the sort-of vernacular, in the sense that there was no requirement to use the remarkably strange Hull accent.

The conferrings in DCU and RGU both have an interesting mix of the formal and informal, and both seem to me to work very well. Graduations are of course milestones in a student’s life, and should be celebrated in a dignified ceremony. But they should also reflect a sense of achievement and joy, and this is best expressed in some moments of informality and sheer good humour. It is n ot an easy balance to strike, but both universities do it well, and this is confirmed by unsolicited comments from graduates and their families and friends.

For those presiding (which in DCU was always me, and in RGU is either the Chancellor or me, taking it in turns), a key task is to shake avery graduating student’s hand. During my ten years as President of DCU, I believe I shook about 25,000 graduands’ hands. There is a slight physical strain involved, but some might wonder whether there is also a hygiene issue. On one occasion at a graduation a student being conferred refused to shake my hand, loudly explaining that he had hygiene-related concerns about doing so.

Did he have a point? Well – and I am grateful to this website for the reference – this has been the subject of some research in Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. The researcher in question ‘got the idea for the project after years of attending the Bloomberg School’s graduations and wondering what would be growing on the dean’s hand at the end of the day.’ This was what he found:

‘Our study indicates when shaking hands, the rate of hand contamination among graduating students to be 100 times lower than the 17 percent rate observed among health workers caring for patients known to be colonized with MRSA. Reasons for the lower rate of contamination at graduations include the much briefer and less-extensive contact in a handshake and what we presume is a lower prevalence of MRSA in graduating students compared to hospital patients. Another reason may be that subsequent handshakes could remove pathogens acquired in an earlier handshake.’

And this is his very reassuring conclusion:

‘With a lower bound estimate of one bacterial pathogen acquired in 5,209 handshakes, the study offers the politicians, preachers, principals, deans and even amateur hand shakers some reassurance that shaking hands with strangers is not as defiling as some might think.’

As a semi-professional handshaker, with four more graduations to come this week, I shall embark upon my task with renewed confidence.

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6 Comments on “Gaudeamus igitur”

  1. Wendymr Says:

    As someone who shakes hands with people several times a day – often people I’m meeting for the first time – I do find the hygiene-related concerns fascinating. I didn’t know the evidence, but had suspected that the risks are minor! Yet most business premises where the general public come as clients (health centres, social services agencies, even shopping malls) have had hand sanitiser available for general use since the big swine-flu outbreak of 2009, if not before. It’s almost accepted practice, too, that if you have a cold you don’t shake people’s hands.

    Another interesting question for me is whether, among all of those 25,000 graduands, you have ever had anyone decline to shake hands for cultural reasons?

  2. Vincent Says:

    I was at a funeral at Kilcash last evening and there was a hand sanitizer just inside the door of the little church.
    As to your hygiene related issue. At least you aren’t going really old school and kissing on both cheeks followed by a smacker on the lips.
    On the questions of pathogens, you’d have to wonder if the immunity delivered by passing on both the bad and the good to what amounts to a newly created herd/community actually Confers a more valuable Good than the parchment itself or the education. :D

  3. anna notaro Says:

    At the University of Dundee the Chancellor is the one who always presides and, crucially, there’s no hand shaking, students bow slightly (that’s a sight!) and he dubs them with their degree. The Principal gives the opening speech which – and that’s the part everyone enjoys most – ends inviting students not to be shy and to celebrate their achievements as loudly as possible and that’s when the whole Caird Hall theatre is on the brink of coming down under the burst of appause, cheering and foot stomping from the whole assembly, including the staff on the stage, unmissable! :)

  4. don Says:

    I attended a recent degree conferring in Cambridge University, where I observed that the graduand knelt before the Vice-Chancellor (or his delegate, on this occasion), joined their hands as if in prayer, and then hand their hands encompassed by the Vice Chancellor’s hands and some words of Latin (including, in some cases, a blessing). The graduand then stood, took one step back, bowed and departed out of the (Senate) building to be greeted by various Fellows and Tutors of their College. Very, VERY, moving


  5. The sporty environs of my graduations still amuses me, I was part of the last group to be conferred in the University sports hall, a mere month or two before the magnificent purpose built showstoppers of the O’Reilly Hall & Helix were completed. My academic achievements will forever be associated with the not so faint whiff of old running shoes and crusty Aertex which no amount of academic gravitas or Spirogel could overcome……..

  6. Al Says:

    I hope that a graduation ceremony in Scotland is less expensive then the mugging that occurs in Ireland where renting a black cloth for 2hrs costs what? 40 euros???? Certificate picture frames????

    Anyone remember this? or was it all glee?


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