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Celebrate inaugurations with time-honored academic and campus traditions

By April L. Harris


Pomp and circumstance is not just the domain of commencement. Inaugurations—large celebrations in honor of the installation of a new president—are a perfect time to highlight long-standing academic traditions.

Commencement officers, special events planners, and advancement professionals are links in a long chain of academic and institution history. But regardless of their title, those who plan and oversee inauguration processions and installation ceremonies follow time-honored traditions of academia. An overview of these traditions follows.

An inviting occasion

Introducing the new CEO to colleagues outside of campus can take many forms, but one of the most traditional is to invite representatives of other institutions to march in the inaugural procession. These representatives can come from institutions in your state, region, or athletics conference; alma maters of the new president; and campuses with which your institution has a significant research, business, or academic relationship.

Inauguration planners also should invite representatives from organizations of scholars devoted to the promotion of research, scholarly publication, and education within the new CEO's field and national honor societies to which he or she belongs.

What to wear

Participants in the inauguration procession and installation ceremony should wear full academic regalia, including appropriate headwear. Delegates from other universities and colleges and representatives of learned societies supply their own regalia. Undergraduate student representatives march in bachelor's degree gowns with mortarboard tassels on the right side to indicate that they have not yet received a degree. Guests representing nonacademic organizations or groups such as bagpipers or Native Americans should wear their formal costumes.

Marching orders

The colorful and dignified inaugural procession closely resembles a commencement procession, with two additional groups—one composed of delegates from other institutions and another of representatives of learned societies. Delegates from both groups march in the procession according to the institution's or society's founding date; the oldest campus or society marches first.

In addition, many campus planners incorporate elements that celebrate the institution's historic and cultural aspects. For an inauguration at Morehouse College, officials commissioned 52 banners to display the names of student organizations. (The banners now reside in the school's African American Hall of Fame.)

At the University of Oklahoma, the Black Leggings Society, a military organization of Kiowas, led the inauguration procession and presented the colors. In addition, tribal leaders and student delegates marched in the traditional dress of Oklahoma tribes.

Marshals, recognizable by the batons they carry or the aiguillettes (cording) over their left shoulders, help control the pace of the procession by leading each division and guiding participants to the appropriate seating areas.

Changing of the guard

The role of the outgoing president largely depends on the circumstances under which he or she is leaving office. If it's a friendly changing of the guard such as a retirement, the outgoing president marches in the inauguration procession but doesn't have a speaking part. The former president does not need to be included in the ceremony, however, if his or her participation is inappropriate or inconvenient.

Emeriti presidents also can participate in the procession. Those who choose not to march can sit in a reserved section of the audience.

Symbols of office

A presidential inauguration is the perfect time to spotlight historic treasures of the campus. Such symbols or insignia of presidential office—institutional relics—often can be made of gems and precious metals or simply objects associated with a momentous campus event (such as the institution's charter, a religious volume, or historically significant books).

A trustee, a distinguished faculty member, or the alumni president typically carries the institution's symbol of office in the procession and presents it to the new president after the installation—the actual moment the new president takes office. Clemson University presidents, for example, receive a copy of the will of Thomas Green Clemson, who bequeathed his estate to the people of South Carolina to create the university. One of Harvard's most treasured relics is a piece of silver holloware known as the Great Salt, an oddly shaped saltcellar, which the future wife of Harvard's first president brought to the colonies from England in 1638.

Creating traditions

Newer institutions might not have vaults filled with precious mementos or own a presidential medallion or mace. Event planners, however, can take stock of campus history, short as it may be, and create objects that can become historically significant. Many institutions honor the inauguration of a new president by commissioning a mace or medallion; other officials carry their campus' seals or important documents in the procession.

Keep custom alive

Inaugurations have a history that is rooted in the Middle Ages and a present-day reality that incorporates modern traditions and customs. Balancing both might seem overwhelming at times, but doing so is important; inaugural customs continue a heritage that's bigger than any one institution.

About the Author Harris Headshot April L. Harris

April L. Harris is associate vice president of university events at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She has served as that school's alumni director and as a member of the alumni, development, or public relations staffs for the Huntsville Botanical Garden, Bowling Green State University, Baylor College of Medicine, and Utah State University.

She is author of four books including the CASE best sellers, Special Events: Planning For Success, Etiquette and Protocol: A Guide for Campus Events and Academic Ceremonies: A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol.

Harris is the recipient of the 2008 CASE Frank Ashmore Award for service to the advancement profession. She has also been recognized with a CASE Crystal Apple for teaching excellence, and the CASE Warwick Award in Alumni Relations for outstanding published scholarship. She is a member of the CASE District III Board of Directors and the CASE Commission on Alumni Relations.




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