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The Legacy of Commencement

Awarding academic degrees to signify reaching a certain level in a branch of learning goes back at least eight centuries, even prior to the creation of universities. In the twelfth century, large bodies of students would gather together in one place, as they did in Paris and Bologna. In such a scholarly milieu, some naturally decided on a career in teaching.

Their first step was to become baccalaureus, a step which preceded by several years permission to teach. Following more years of study, the student was admitted to a select circle of teachers through a series of special initiation rites. The installation in a teaching post followed practices of Roman Law among students in Paris. Some vestiges of the ceremony are seen in today’s commencement exercises, namely the investment with a square cap. The new master would embark upon his teaching career with his first lecture, his inceptio, meaning commencement.

From these origins has come our commencement, a special academic ceremony for the purpose of awarding degrees, which begins and ends with an academic procession. As a descendant of clerical processions of the churches, it is carried out with great dignity and impressiveness. All participants wear the academic regalia appropriate to their highest degree. Faculty members process in order of their academic rank, with senior full professors first, followed by their colleagues of successively lower rank. The procession is formed in ranks of two except for special dignitaries or honorees who may walk alone. The entire procession is headed by a senior faculty member bearing an ornate institutional banner and another serving as grand marshal and carrying the institutional mace, a traditional emblem of authority of the bearer.

High point of the commencement program is awarding of degrees. Placing a hood on the shoulders of the graduate is the time-honored gesture denoting the investiture of the degree. Since this practice is most often retained solely for advanced degrees in contemporary commencement exercises, today’s bachelor’s degree recipients symbolize the hooding through the simple act of moving the tassel on the cap from the right to the left side. Only a few institutions maintain the practice — as we do at Ohio Northern University — of the President of the University placing the diploma in the hand of the candidate.

Evolving culture and customs have changed the details of awarding degrees. Yet it remains a rich and memorable experience for participants and witnesses, a ceremony sensitive to tradition and conveying great significance in the lives of the new graduates.