Even very non-traditional universities like DCU do some things in a fairly traditional way. Probably one thing we share with almost every other university is the graduation ceremony, where students are formally awarded the qualification they have earned, marking the end of their direct membership of the student community (unless of course they proceed to another programme).
On two occasions I have attended such ceremonies as a graduand – one in Trinity College Dublin and the other in Cambridge. On both occasions the ceremony was entirely in Latin. Indeed the one in Cambridge amused me particularly, because it involved the Chancellor addressing me as his son (not just me, of course) and laying his hands on my head while I knelt before him. No doubt the symbolism was deliberate, and was supposed to resemble ordination; in this case ordination to what would once have been a very exclusive mystical community. I was being ordained – oops, I mean conferred – alongside an Irish student who added to this impression by instinctively adding ‘Amen’ at the end of the Latin conferring formula, no doubt a throwback to the Latin masses of his youth.
Of course since then I have attended many conferrings of others, and in the last ten years I have presided over all of DCU’s graduations. Over that period every single student who had successfully completed their programme of study or research received his or her degree from me, and if they were present at the conferring they received a handshake from me. I have calculated that I have presided at 110 such ceremonies (including those in our linked colleges), and that I have shaken some 23,000 hands. I have felt every possible (and some weird and wonderful) hand jewellery, and have watched people (and I would have to say, mainly women) crossing the stage in some pretty improbable footwear. I have seen and responded to happy smiles, as well as the occasional sullen ‘I’m-only-here-for-my-parents’ look. I have delivered 110 speeches, no two identical. And on Saturday I did all this for the last time: when next in November a student picks up their DCU award in the Helix, they will be receiving it from my successor.
On the whole, I am an informal person, just as DCU is an informal university. Still, these ceremonies have a capacity to pull me into the slightly mystical mood of something being done that is greater than what it appears to be, a rite of passage and a re-confirmation of community bonds that we hope will last beyond the years of study.
A couple of times during my term of office someone has raised the issue of whether these graduations are perhaps not part of the ethos of DCU, but every time the response has been immediate and overwhelming, and has involved a re-affirmation of the importance of these events. I suspect they will always be there, and actually I am glad.
My final outing on Saturday turned out to be an emotional affair for me. First we awarded an honorary degree to Owen Keenan, former chief executive of Barnardos – thereby again confirming DCU’s desire to support social justice as well as enterprise – and then, at the last ceremony, I received an unexpected, and probably undeserved, ovation from staff and graduates that almost left me tearful. I guess rites of passage do matter.