Posted tagged ‘conferrings’

Graduation stories

March 28, 2010

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.

Discriminatory formalities?

May 6, 2009

Today someone brought an issue to my attention about which I have also long wondered – without ever doing anything about it. In DCU as in most (maybe even all) Irish universities, at graduation ceremonies the women graduands wear caps (mortar boards), while the men don’t. This seems to me to be a peculiarly Irish thing: in all UK universities I have experienced, both men and women wear mortar boards.

It seems to me that either we should  ask all graduands to wear them, or else nobody should have to wear them; but to discriminate between men and women in this way seems hard to justify. However, I have to admit I have no idea how this came about in the first place, and despite the fact that I have observed this practice since my own student days, today is the first time that I have ever heard anyone comment on it.

Anyway, I am taking the matter to the relevant decision-making bodies here in DCU, and will recommend that we stop treating males and females differently for these purposes.

On the other hand, although DCU is a modern non-traditional university, even here we do support the idea of certain formalities in graduations. A few years ago a colleague suggested that in these ceremonies the wearing of hoods and gowns should be optional, but received very little support from anyone. I suppose it is a rite of passage for which graduands, their families and our staff still like to see some ceremonial. However, it should not discriminate.