05/23/2013 09:36 am ET Updated Jul 23, 2013

The Circumstances Behind the Pomp -- Reflections From a Dean in Transition


I estimate I have shaken hands with perhaps 8,000 graduating students. That is the role of a dean -- and one I relished during a dozen years of deanship. I presided at about 100 graduation and recognition ceremonies over this time, and thought of myself (for those readers over the age of 100) as the George Jessel of commencements. You'd think I would tire of these rituals. I introduced myself to each audience saying I had the honor to serve my college as its dean -- and, sincerely, I meant it.

I would return home after a mid-May evening, with my right hand numb and my cheeks in pain -- having shaken 600 hands, trying my best to establish eye contact with each graduate and say something congratulatory, then posing with both our hands on the diploma and smiling for the photographer. I knew that what was a routine and repetitious moment for me was the personal culmination of a long gauntlet of student challenges and a visual to be etched in the memories of the graduates for years to come. I knew our photo would likely sit eternally on their mantel place.

I often tried to imagine what raced through the minds of students as they marched across the stage, often in front of their loved ones embarrassing them with cat calls from the bleachers. I guessed that they saw their years of academic toil now reaching a very satisfying conclusion. At much as I defended myself from the firm handshakes of burly guys, by switching my wedding band from my right hand (which is my norm) to my left, it would invariably be that diminutive woman's engagement band, turned inward, that would tear into my hand.

I would ponder what would happen if 2,000 spectators saw a dean collapse from pivoting back and forth so many times, staying in character, avoiding every sign of cynical detachment or fatigue. I'd go home drained, with "Pomp and Circumstance" blaring in my brain and lingering for days to come.

I recall that when British prime ministers leave office, they just depart 10 Downing Street quietly out the back door. Departing a deanship seems somewhat similar. I stepped out of my position in January to go on sabbatical and will return next fall as a full-time faculty member. So, it was the task of the interim dean to officiate at our recent graduation. Instead of a participant, I was now an observer -- no spotlight, no master of ceremony role, just another faculty body in the choir of faculty standing in the background.

I am told that deans retain their titles even after they leave. Like presidents and convicted serial killers, their names are forever preceded by their former roles. But I do need to let go, and found that this May's graduation was surprisingly helpful. It was a commencement of sorts for me: I was finishing one academic experience and beginning a new phase of my life. I found this ceremony an unsentimental farewell -- and at times even interminably long.

I huddled with the faculty, trying to concentrate on the students parading across the stage. But it was no longer my moment as well. I was invisible, and could appreciate this with detachment. To kill time, some of us tried to do the mental math at various intervals to estimate what percentage of the students had already appeared on stage.

I liked the subtlety and serenity of my rite of passage -- that colleges go on, students graduate, and departing deans depart unnoticed. I had done my job. I had helped create, sustain, and improve academic programs that made a lasting impact on thousands of students. Innovations will need to stand the test of time based on their own merits. Others would now lead in the process of continuing to strive for even higher goals.

This was a perfectly satisfying legacy, and watching academic life, and its culminating rituals, continue, is reward in itself. Several colleagues asked if this graduation was bittersweet for me -- and I had to say it really wasn't. At the end, I just slipped out the back door, and felt fine -- with what I had left and what I now had to look forward to. It all seemed as it should be.

Jay A. Halfond is the former dean of Boston University's Metropolitan College, currently on sabbatical.