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Ceremonies Connect Past, Envision Future

For a person who plans ceremonies, there is nothing to compare with a royal wedding! On Saturday, I was up early, fixed a pot of tea with fresh scones, strawberry jam and whipped cream (the closest I could get to clotted cream in northern Alabama) and glued myself to my computer to soak in every detail of Harry and Meghan’s big day. It didn’t disappoint.

The ceremony was modern as befitted the bride and groom yet filled with traditions representing both of their heritages. The significance of the day was beautifully expressed through hundreds of symbolic details that tied past to present. Meghan chose to wear Queen Mary’s Diamond Bandeau Tiara which featured a brooch that the queen had received on her wedding day in 1893. Meghan carried a bouquet that had snips of myrtle from The Queen’s garden, just as other royal brides before her. Harry and Meghan’s rings were formed from a nugget of Welsh gold, following a 100-year tradition that was established by the late Queen Mother. The service incorporated not only traditional Church of England hymns, but songs from the African American gospel tradition in salute to Meghan’s heritage. Now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, the couple took a celebratory ride through Windsor in an open carriage built in 1883, the same one that has been used for numerous royal weddings.

All of these highly meaningful expressions of tradition were juxtaposed against a moment in time that was anything but traditional. Who could ever have imagined the archbishop of Canterbury presiding in St. George’s Chapel alongside the African-American leader of the Episcopal Church? Not too many years ago, an heir to the throne would have been denied permission to marry a commoner, let along one that is American, divorced, and bi-racial. Marriage was for securing alliances, and marrying for love was not done, yet that is exactly what happened on Saturday.

Ceremonies and the traditions expressed through them, bring order and meaning to the passages in our lives. They separate time and announce publicly that who we were and who we are becoming, are two different things. Meghan and Harry would be just as married if they had forgone the elaborate ceremony and eloped to Las Vegas for a quickie service officiated by an Elvis impersonator. But ceremonies, whether they are weddings, commencements, inaugurations, military promotions, or funerals tie us to our roots and help us move forward to embrace life’s next phases. When witnessed by relatives, friends, and others, our support network is signing on to help us achieve success.

In academia, May is synonymous with commencement, a ceremony that announces to the world that students have completed their studies, have closed a chapter in their lives, and are ready to join the ranks of educated men and women.  Like the royal wedding, commencement embraces traditions that date back to other centuries. The highly symbolic regalia, faculty colors, and the grand procession with its presidential mace and medallion, all harken to the Middle Ages. But like the wedding, today’s ceremonies have also evolved modern modifications, building on the solid base of tradition but interpreting the occasion in the context of our era. We no longer hood students individually but this does not lessen the hood’s symbolism. Technology using computer bar codes lets us project graduates’ names on jumbo screens and while each name may or may not still be read from the podium, mom and dad treasure the iPhone photo they snapped when their child’s name appeared for all to see.

Ceremonies and traditions are an important part of our cultural fabric. They let us all know when something truly special is taking place. Modifications occur naturally with the passage of time, but as long as we incorporate them respectfully and meaningfully, they blend with cherished traditions to paint richer, more relevant ceremonies that ensure our celebrations will continue to have memorable meaning for generations to come, just like Meghan and Harry’s very special day.

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Alexander Hamilton To Get Honorary Degree

Even though he died in 1804, Alexander Hamilton is going to receive an honorary degree from Albany Law School at the college’s spring commencement.

Honorary degrees, higher education’s most prestigious recognition, are reserved for eminent individuals with national or international reputations. Hamilton certainly qualifies. He was one of the nation’s founding fathers, had a distinguished career as one of George Washington’s most trusted aides during the Revolutionary War, later practiced law, served as the first secretary of the treasury, and is considered the father of the nation’s financial system.

Why now? Honorary degrees are an opportunity to establish ties with a prominent person, to bask in the reflected glory of his or her accomplishments, and to generate some positive media buzz. In Hamilton’s case, Albany Law School said it is recognizing his contributions to the Albany, New York area where he practiced law and married into a prominent local family. With Hamilton currently riding a wave of rock star status thanks to the Broadway musical that bears his name, tiny Albany Law, an old, private school with only 372 students, is riding his coattails with a creative local angle that has brought an enormous PR bounce. Hamilton never actually earned a law degree, so awarding him an honorary is the perfect way to call attention to the school. Honorary degrees don’t typically get much publicity, but this announcement has generated extensive media coverage.

So how can a guy who has been dead for 214 years qualify for a degree? Honorary degrees are conferred honoris causa, a Latin term meaning “for the sake of honor.” They are typically doctoral degrees, though not equivalent to Ph.D. s, nor do they entitle the recipient to the same professional privileges as individuals who have earned degrees.

Honorary degree recipients are leading scholars, discoverers, inventors, authors, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, social activists, and leaders in politics and government. Occasionally, honorary degrees are awarded to people who have rendered lifelong service to a university through board membership, volunteerism, or major financial contributions. At some schools, honorary degree recipients deliver the commencement address, but this is not a requirement.

Honorary degrees are often presented at commencement to take advantage of the large audience and the pomp and circumstance already in place. The candidate is part of the platform party and processes wearing a black doctoral gown or the school’s custom doctoral regalia. Candidates are hooded and receive a diploma and a citation. In the case of a posthumous degree like Hamilton’s, a surrogate stands in to accept these items.

What to Call an Honorary Degree Recipient

Honorary degree recipients are properly addressed as “doctor” in correspondence from the university that awarded the degree and in conversation on the campus. But honorary degree recipients should not refer to themselves as “doctor,” nor should they use the title on business cards or in correspondence.

The honorary degree recipient is entitled to use the appropriate honorary abbreviation behind his or her name, for example, (full name), Litt.D. On a resume or in a biographical sketch, they may indicate an honorary degree by writing out the degree followed by the words honoris causa to signify that the degree is honorary, not earned.

When addressing a person who has received an honorary degree from another university, it is not correct to use the term “doctor.”

Because many people misunderstand these nuances, it is courteous to provide recipients with a card or brochure to explain how to appropriately signify their degrees. Tuck the card in with the hood and citation when these items are shipped to them after the ceremony or send in a follow-up congratulatory letter.

So, while I don’t know for certain, my guess is Alexander Hamilton will receive a Doctor of Laws (L.L. D.) and were his ghost to ever to appear at Albany Law School, it would be correct for all there to address him as Doctor Hamilton. Back in his New York City law office, however, he would be just plain Mr. Hamilton.

For more information about honorary degrees, including presenting the degree, awarding it posthumously, regalia for the recipient, and how to appropriately host the honoree, order my book Academic Ceremonies A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol, available at http://case.org.

 

 

 

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Yea, May! Commencement Time!

Yea, May! It’s the time of year when campus events planners have the end in sight and are looking forward to some time off. The academic year that began last August and that has since encompassed literally hundreds of events big and small, is about to wind up with the year’s biggest celebration: commencement!

Campus events planners often say to me “I don’t have anything to do with commencement.” But wait, we all do. Commencement is our reason for being, without graduating students, none of us would be employed. There would be no need for events to recruit students, re-connect alumni, or court donors.

Commencement (called “convocation” in Canada) is the year’s biggest celebration, a day of accomplishment and achievement celebrated by thousands of very happy people. For many, it will be one of the highlights of a lifetime. Why wouldn’t you want to be involved?

Orchestrating commencement requires a team of people with specialized knowledge and the capabilities to manage a large ceremony involving everyone from dignitaries to proud grandmothers. It’s worth learning how to do.

For one thing, adding commencement experience to your special events planner skill set adds value to your resume, is good for job security, and is attractive come promotion time. Even if diversifying into commencement and other academic ceremonies seems a far-off likelihood, I encourage you to get experience anyway by volunteering to help. While every campus has someone who is ultimately responsible for commencement, no campus has a permanent staff large enough to manage the ceremony without others. Volunteers are always needed and being one is a good way to try out commencement to see if you like it. Besides, volunteering for commencement may yield some return favors when you need assistance with major events. Beginners usually start by assisting with line-up, helping in the robing rooms, or facilitating post-ceremony receptions.

Commencement is a joyous day and it is always gratifying to watch the graduates and their proud families celebrate one of life’s major milestones. The positive energy and excitement never fails to rejuvenate my planner spirit and leaves me deeply satisfied.  Commencement brings closure to the year.

To learn more about commencement, check out the North American Association of Commencement Officers at http://naaco.org or plan to attend one of their regional meetings or annual conference.

To those of you who are already part of the proud commencement team, good luck with this spring’s ceremonies. I have posted answers to commencement FAQ in “Academic Protocol Fast Facts” under the Academic Ceremonies tab.