At a college graduation? This might make it (mildly) more interesting.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably sitting at a graduation ceremony and the announcer is on name number 237 out of 1000. Congratulations. That means there’s only about 700 more names to go.

With hundreds of graduations going on this weekend, attendees might need a little light reading to pass the time. But reader beware, reading this article might have you focusing on something other than the next hundred names or so.

Every year around commencement the questions from students and parents and curious passers-by begin to pop up. And why shouldn’t they? Sitting in hours of graduation exercises allows for lots of time for observation.

For your reading pleasure during this year’s commencement, here’s a breakdown of things you might notice (and things you probably haven’t) about graduation at your university.

Graduates for the MA in Communication in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte


First let’s talk about those robes. They are the most obvious oddity of the day, so most schools even put a paragraph about them in the commencement brochure.

Students receiving a bachelor’s degree wear plain robes, usually black, and sometimes receive a hood at graduation. Moving on.

Take a look at those master’s degree candidates like the ones pictured above. Their robes are typically black, but their sleeves are pointy. Inside those extra-long sleeves are little pockets perfect for holding cell phones, keys, or (as they were originally intended) –  a piece of chalk for writing on the chalkboard. Maybe we should bring back the tradition. of teachers wearing their robes to teach.

Students receiving master’s degrees almost always receive a hood at graduation. Ask one of them to wear it like a hood instead of draped down the back. It’s pretty amusing to see. You’ll notice the color velvet on the hood is typically different for the variety of master’s degrees. The velvet represents the field or subject of mastery. If you’re attending an education ceremony the color’s light blue. If it’s an arts degree, white. And if it’s a science degree, gold.

Inside the hood are the colors of university. Every university has its own, unique and registered chevron  inside the hood. You can see a school’s official colors there and – surprising fact – they’re not always the same as the school’s athletic colors.

More likely than not, you’ve already chuckled at the ornate faculty robes. Faculty members get to wear those a few times a year to either boost their egos or weigh them down. You can be the judge. My robe is bright purple with orange piping – the ostentatious color combination of the wonderful Clemson University (SC) where I proudly earned my doctorate.

Dr. Caroline Parsons is hooded at the University of Alabama commencement exercises. That dark blue velvet is the marker of a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

A typical college’s faculty graduated from a variety of universities. Their robes reflect this diversity.You’ll notice that the hoods are really long and the sleeves have velvet stripes (Doctors get three).  At most universities the color of the velvet on doctoral robes is dark blue representing the PhD degree – the doctor of philosophy. If you’re at a medical school the MDs wear an appropriate gangrene green and likewise, at a law ceremony, the Juris Doctorate bears a purple velvet.


If you’re Catholic, Episcopalian, or even Methodist, you probably recognize the order. For all the unchurched, the lineup is done by relative importance. Just like in church, people process by order of rank – from least important to most. In church, the lineup is cross bearer, acolytes, choir, platform party, priest. In colleges, the lineup is macebearer, students, faculty, platform party, president. I realize this makes the faculty the choir, but why not? We’re pretty loud.

First in line is the mace of the university. This is a tradition descending from the Anglican Church’s verger. A verger carried a stick through the crowd to push away the cattle, chickens, and other livestock that stood in the way of a procession. The verger also had the task of subduing unruly onlookers with a swift tap of the stick. I dare you to jump out in front of the person with the mace and see if you get clubbed. More likely than not, you’ll get a stern look or a polite “excuse me” (hopefully).

Carrying the mace is a position of honor. Typically the macebearer is the faculty marshal determined by longevity of service, election, or award.

Professor Ashley Fitch Blair carries the Union University (TN) mace. She was honored with the university’s “Faculty Member of the Year” award in 2015.

Students are lined up by type of degree and then alphabetically.

The faculty are lined up in order of rank. This order is based on three things: (1) educational level; (2) faculty rank; and (3) longevity of service.

Lecturers and instructors line up first, followed by assistant professors (assistant professor is a rank not a job description). Assistant professors are typically doctorally-qualified faculty members working toward tenure. Next come associate professors. Associate professors have successfully established a connection to the university, and have typically been awarded tenure. Next, full professors have been awarded the title of professor after distinguishing themselves in teaching, scholarship, or service. Following the professors are deans and vice presidents of the universities (the platform party).

Finally, the president.


Take a look at the president’s robes and try to spot three differences between faculty robes and president robes.

It’s like one of those “Something’s Different” cartoons you used to do in preschool.

Spoiler alert: the differences are in the number of stripes on the sleeves, the color of the robes, and the jewelry. First, the president wears four stripes on the sleeves. Second, the president wears the colors of the university at which he or she is president, regardless of where he or she graduated. Third the present wears a chunky medallion with the seal of the University on it around his or her neck.

All of this pomp and circumstance is an exciting thing to produce. And just so I don’t get a lot of snarky comments, when you watch them march out, they’ll be lined up in reverse.

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