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Whose Commencement Is It, Anyway?

06/02/2014 03:32 pm ET | Updated Aug 02, 2014
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A few weeks ago, some colleagues and I were sharing stories about graduation ceremonies, and the discussion reminded me of at least two very different ways of thinking about the role of commencement in the contemporary college.

Should it be viewed primarily as an academic ritual or as a celebration?

The first view was articulated recently by a provost who is just retiring after a long and distinguished career. He shook his head sadly and said, "Graduation is not what it used to be. It's lost its seriousness, its gravitas."

A business dean, who is much earlier in his career, disagreed. "I kind of like the festiveness that we see these days," he replied. "Graduation used to be too staid and pretentious. That's not my idea of a celebration."

I have to admit, early in my career, I felt exactly as this provost does. I believed that commencement was a supremely academic exercise, the culmination of years of study and rigor, and that the ceremony should, therefore, reflect the seriousness of that work and the achievement it symbolizes. I, too, was shocked by the behavior I witnessed at some ceremonies.

Of course, at the time I was on the faculty of a large research university in Florida, a state notorious for fun and sun. Thousands of students and relatives attended our graduation ceremonies. And one never knew what to expect.

At times, oversized beach balls would suddenly appear out of nowhere and be tossed back and forth among spectators in the large arena where we conducted the ceremony. University attendants would scramble to try to capture the projectiles.

Fraternities and sororities would orchestrate loud cheering sections to applaud each of their members as they crossed the stage. Over time, the Greek groups engaged in a fierce competition to be the loudest advocates for their own members.

As they crossed the stage, some graduates would stop midway, face the crowd, and thrust their fists skyward, while others would perform a stylized strut as if to say, "Look how cool I am." On one occasion, a graduate crossing the stage to shake hands with the university president became so carried away with emotion that instead of shaking hands he swept her into a bear hug. Unflustered and to the amazement of all, the president did not skip a beat; she recovered instantly, just in time to shake the next student's hand. (She even somehow managed not to lose her tam in the process.)

And, of course, there were the graduates who sought to subvert the pomp and ceremony of drab academic regalia by making a fashion statement. They wore flamboyant clothing that was clearly visible despite their regalia. They had colorful leis around their necks. Or they donned shorts and sandals so that onlookers might be tempted to believe that the graduate was nude under the academic robe.

Then there were the air horns, which would periodically blare out from various locations in the stands, despite the administration's best efforts to prohibit them from graduation.

At two separate ceremonies, the proceedings were briefly interrupted when streakers, wearing nothing but mortar boards, raced across the stage. (On one such occasion, a doctoral student whom I had just hooded turned to me and joked, "I told you a college education today will cost the shirt off your back -- and apparently more.")

While Florida may well be known as a "fun" state, my colleagues across the country confirm that similar types of behavior are common in their own commencement exercises. Like my colleague, I felt for a long time that such interruptions degraded the dignity of this quintessentially academic event. But perhaps I was wrong.

It is true that university commencements are meant to applaud academic achievement, and given that only one of four people ever earns a college degree in the United States, doing so is truly a remarkable feat.

But we sometimes forget that the word "commence" means begin, not end. More than anything else, commencement is a celebration of a new phase in the graduate's life.

For some students, it marks their entry into a profession. For others it marks their eligibility to extend their education through graduate and professional schools or some other area of advanced study. For yet others, it is a new sense of self-confidence and self-respect.

It may seem like blasphemy to say so (as it would have to me decades ago), but a commencement ceremony is less an academic ritual than an advancement event. It is a big formal party.

It's about helping to make graduates proud not only of their own accomplishments but also of their institutions. It's about making the graduates' relatives feel warm and fuzzy about the campus as well. It's about formalizing the transformation from students to dedicated alumni. It's about reminding faculty members of the central role they play in shaping their students' futures. It's about reminding alumni of why they are so committed to the institution. It's about promoting the college to all its constituents -- and for all the right reasons.

In short, it is about positioning people to develop relationships with the institution that will increase the likelihood that they will give back, in one way or another, to a beloved alma mater. In fact, at some universities, it's the development office, and not academic affairs or student services, that is responsible for organizing and sponsoring the commencement ceremony.

A university where I once worked boasts the only college of pharmacy in the state and one of the best in the western United States. The students have a longstanding tradition of playing a prank on the dean at the annual commencement exercise. It's a well-organized ritual. During the portion of the ceremony where the pharmacy graduates cross the stage and shake hands with their dean, each one hands the dean an object that reflects the theme they have chosen for the year's prank. One year each student handed the dean a flower. Another time it was a piece of a puzzle. Members of yet another class thought of themselves as guinea pigs because they were the first to study under a drastically altered curriculum, so each student handed the dean a small bag of guinea-pig food.

Some years ago, as I participated in my first commencement at this university, I was momentarily taken aback as each pharmacy graduate solemnly handed the dean a potato (we are in Idaho, after all). The dean would grin sheepishly, accept it, and shake hands. As the pile of potatoes rose, an attendant slipped onto the stage with a potato sack to collect the mementos. My initial reaction was to raise my eyebrows at all the potatoes, but then I remembered: This is the students' day, not mine. Let them have their much-deserved fun. And they did.

A version of this post was previously published in the Chronicle of Higher Education.