Posted tagged ‘graduations’

Making the grade

July 9, 2012

About ten years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, a colleague there put a proposal to the university’s Academic Council (Senate) to drop academic dress for graduations. At any rate, he wanted gowns and hoods to become optional, both for students and for staff. There was a lively debate, at the end of which the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated. DCU is a thoroughly up to date university without much respect for tradition, but this proposal found very little support. So what is about graduations – these ceremonies with anachronistic clothes, formal choreography, lots of amateur dramatics – that makes them such significant events, even today?

I ask this at the beginning of a week that will see me attend seven graduation ceremonies in Robert Gordon University (and speak at all of them). I shall see the usual mix of apparently reluctant (but in truth very proud) graduands, out to please their parents but actually really pleased themselves, those sporting really improbable footwear and jewellery,  waistcoats worn with jeans, everything you can imagine. And like many ceremonies, the graduations will have a deeper significance than the external formalities might suggest. People ask about the meaning of it all, but in the end large numbers do come.

Perhaps the most significant point one can make about graduations is that they foster a sense of belonging in the academy, that includes those who have completed their formal learning but still remain part of the institution’s wider community. And, who knows, maybe the dressing up is a good way of illustrating the value of shared scholarship, even in a modern academy.


Gaudeamus igitur

July 14, 2011

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.

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.

Ending the headwear discrimination

June 12, 2009

In a recent post I pointed out that Irish universities maintain a curious discrimination at graduation ceremonies, compelling female graduands to wear mortar boards while men are not required, or even allowed, to do so. Well, I am happy to report that on Thursday of this week DCU’s Academic Council has put an end to this practice, and from now on the wearing of mortar boards will be optional for all graduands, male and female.

In the overall scheme of things this is a minor matter. And yet, since I wrote the original post, I have been told by many women graduates (some of whom commented in this blog) that they were told that women had to wear mortar boards to illustrate that their undergraduate degrees ‘capped’ their education. Even though I do not believe that the practice was initiated for this reason, it is nevertheless intolerable that anyone graduating should be led to believe that this might be the symbolism.

From now on it will be a matter of individual choice. As it happens, I hope that both men and women – or at least some of them – will wear the mortar boards. DCU is not a very traditional university, but just occasionally ceremonial traditions have some value, or at least provide some colour at such important moments in a person’s and an institution’s development.

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.