Hastily conceived hybrid commencement ceremonies were implemented by most schools last spring as the pandemic was building at the precise time spring exercises were about to happen. Many schools promised graduates that later in the summer, or perhaps this fall, they could return to campus to walk in a traditional ceremony. Some schools mailed diplomas with no ceremony, and others held virtual ceremonies and mailed diplomas later. Things like awarding honorary degrees and hosting notable speakers were put on hold. Now, with the Covid-19 all-clear still not happening, schools are left wondering how to fill the promises of postponed in-person ceremonies and how to go forward safely without creating a backlog of graduates who are waiting to be recognized.
As the author of Academic Ceremonies A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol (available at www.case.org) I have received numerous inquiries about to handle sticky situations like diplomas that were mailed with no degree conferral being spoken, whether or not to virtually award honorary degrees to people who should have received them last May, and, how to accommodate the graduates whose in-person ceremonies were postponed from May, to August, to maybe December, which in truth, looks doubtful.
The best answer is to be certain your ceremony, whether virtual, in-person, or a combination, includes what the “Academic Costume Code and Academic Ceremony Guide,” calls “the essential elements of the ceremony.” The guide, agreed to in 1895 by a committee appointed by the American Council on Education, is the authority on such matters. (You can see it on this website by clicking on the “academic ceremonies” tab.) According to the code, the essentials of commencement are “the conferring of degrees and the commencement address.”
Excited to get their diplomas, most students don’t realize the conferral—the actual speaking of the words that award their degrees—is the true highlight of the ceremony. This happens when the president, or whomever is designated by your school’s governing body, confers the degrees by reciting a formulary, usually something like, “Upon the recommendation of the faculty, and by the power invested in me by the Board of Trustees, I confer upon each of you the bachelor’s degree with all the rights and privileges there unto pertaining.” This step is repeated for each level of degree. Without it, the degree technically isn’t official.
Unfortunately, quickly formatted commencement alternatives sometimes left this critical step out. If you are planning a virtual ceremony, be certain the president or chancellor, says the degree conferral language for each group of recipients. Once done, diplomas can be mailed with total peace of mind.
While deans can properly distribute diplomas and congratulate graduates, it is not appropriate for them to host ceremonies that give the impression they are awarding degrees unless they have specifically been given authority from your school’s governing body to confer them. If this power has been granted, they need to say the conferral words.
Degrees Were Conferred, Now They Want to March
Some graduates will want to return to participate in a commencement ceremony, craving the sense of accomplishment and closure that comes with it. If degrees were properly conferred and diplomas mailed over the summer, and now graduates are returning to march in a ceremony, it is incorrect to call them “candidates.” They are graduates. In such a case, it would be more accurate to refer to the ceremony that includes them as a “commencement celebration,” or similar. It would be improper to read the conferral language again, but correct to read their names and have them march across the stage for congratulations and a photo with the president.
While the commencement address is a much-maligned tradition, I think it is especially important to include words of inspiration from your school’s highest authority in this time of disconnectedness. Even if the address isn’t from a famous person, words of encouragement from the president should absolutely be included in your virtual or hybrid ceremony. Commencement is one of life’s major milestone celebrations and the feelings the school imparts to graduates on their way out the door will likely greatly impact their alumni and donor attitudes going forward.
Honorary Degree Recipients
Honorary degrees are higher education’s most prestigious recognition. They are reserved for eminent individuals with national or international reputations. One of the main reasons for awarding honorary degrees is so that the school can highlight the prestigious people with whom it is associated and host them on campus. Not doing so in person diminishes the stature of the honor, deprives students of the chance to meet them or hear them speak, and robs the university of the opportunity to host them.
For these reasons, it would be preferable to postpone the presentation of honorary degrees until the person or persons, can be present and take part in all of the pomp and ceremony of commencement. Simply mailing honorary degrees to last spring’s recipients as has been suggested by a group of one school’s deans, is not an adequate representation of the occasion.
For more information about honorary degrees, see my blog post, “Alexander Hamilton to Get Honorary Degree.”