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Happy Birthday to the Father of American Protocol


Tuesday is George Washington’s birthday and while most things many Americans assume to be true about him are not (no, his false teeth were not made from wood and he didn’t chop down the cherry tree), there is one fact that is true: He defined the conduct of the office of the president of the United States and set the tone for the nation’s protocol.

As he took office in 1789 and began to shape a functioning government from the loose concepts described in the Constitution, President Washington recognized the importance of ceremonies and etiquette in helping give the new nation credibility but was also keenly aware that Americans didn’t want a system that resembled the excesses of European royalty.

Washington strove to determine a balance between what he called “the dignity and respect that is due the first Magistrate” and the republican ideals for which the country fought. Among his first duties was creating an official seal and soliciting input about the tenor the new government should take not only for relations with citizens, but with other countries. It is because of his insights and wisdom, that our president doesn’t sit on a throne and that we don’t call him “your majesty,” or worse, as was suggested, “His Highness, the Protector of Our Liberties.” Instead, Washington opted for what John Adams called “common sense and consideration” as the basis for protocol.

Noted throughout his life for his courtesy and polished manners, many people are familiar with Washington’s little book, “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior,” (available at which he copied at age 14 from a French source as an educational exercise. Of the 110 rules listed there, the majority still constitute the basis for polite behavior.

Happy birthday, President Washington, and thank-you.

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Ceremonies Mark Milestones

According to the BBC, 13.6 million people in the UK paused their lives to watch Saturday’s televised funeral service for Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. They were joined by another 7.5 million people globally who watched online. The interest shows not only respect for the Prince, but the importance of ceremony in our lives.

Ceremonies mark milestones and tell the world, from this point forward, things are different. When ceremonies are missing, we lose the sense of accomplishment and closure that they impart. At weddings, ceremonies bring two families together, at commencement, they signify that the graduate has completed a course of study and is prepared to embark on the next phase of life. At funerals, they give us a way to show respect for what the deceased as contributed and provide a structure for saying goodbye. Ceremonies also link us to those people and happenings that have come before us through colors, shapes, flowers, regalia, music, and the spoken word. And so it was Saturday as the world witnessed the Prince’s beautiful, albeit scaled down, socially distanced funeral.

The large response to Prince Philip’s funeral also underscores how important it is for traditional springtime academic ceremonies like awards presentations, retirements, service anniversaries, and commencement to resume despite the pandemic. Like the royal family, we must all find ways to present these important occasions with the dignity they deserve as best we can in light of pandemic precautions. When ceremonies are cancelled or missing like they were during 2020, we lose the sense of closure, of becoming part of the “family” of people who have achieved these things before us, and the sense of the accomplishment that they impart.

The Duke’s funeral was a poignant reflection of his personality and a salute to the things that meant most to him in life including his military career, his passion for nature, and his legacy of service to Queen and country. Price Philip planned much of the occasion and included many powerful symbols, both lighthearted and serious. He designed a customized Land Rover to bear his coffin, reflecting the vehicle’s status as one of his life-long favorites. He selected the music and his favorite passages from scripture. Most notably, his coffin spoke volumes about things of which he was most proud: It was draped with his personal standard and atop it lay his navy cap, officer’s sword, and a wreath from the Queen.

This year, many colleges and universities are returning to holding in-person commencement ceremonies. Most are modified to be Covid compliant by limiting crowd size, eliminating the traditional handshakes between the president, deans, and graduates; requiring masks, and utilizing more and smaller ceremonies. Many will also be livestreamed to accommodate people who cannot attend in person, thus magnifying the impact of the day and enabling many, many more people to share the moment.

In the end, the extra effort required to create the opportunity for graduates to partake in these milestone ceremonies is an investment in a lifetime of pride and loyalty, not only for the graduates, but for the families who helped them accomplish their dreams. Like Prince Philip’s funeral, these beautiful moments filled with symbols and tradition, signal to us all that it is time to move on to the next chapter of life and despite all that has happened in the last 14 months, to do so in a celebratory, positive way.









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Can We Talk?


Being cooped up in my World Headquarters (aka my home office) has made me thoroughly sick of videoconferencing, texts, and e-mails. Can we just talk? A simple phone call would solve most communication needs and have the added benefit of providing a more natural connection to the person on the other end.

While the marvel of being able to see people on our laptops is not to be diminished, Zoom is a counterintuitive big offender in dehumanizing interpersonal communication. Its overuse has usurped the more personal, flowing conversations we used to have via telephone. Now instead of discussing ideas and solving problems with a short phone call, we must first structure communication by scheduling a videoconferencing meeting. Rather than picking up the phone, we begin by exchanging calendars, then scheduling the session, and finally, going to the online meeting where most people will feel unnatural while trying to look professional in their improvised offices (my favorite is the man who meets from his wife’s sewing room surrounded by the ironing board, scissors on peg boards, sewing boxes, and fabrics). This morning I watched a presenter’s Zoom PowerPoint while listening to his kitty meowing emphatically. It was all I could do to not say, “Let’s pause so you can feed your cat.”

New research hints that job candidates interviewed on Zoom score less favorably than those who interview in person. My guess is that’s because most of us aren’t polished TV personalities and being on Zoom requires us to invest energy in worrying about whether or not we’re Zooming properly. Being a tiny head in a tiny onscreen box removes much of the informal information we gather from body language such as eye contact, nodding, and responsive conversation. Most of us aren’t good at not watching ourselves on screen, knowing how to look into the camera, or quickly finding the “unmute” button to respond to another square’s comment. Video conferencing kills natural rapport because it eliminates spontaneity. We feel uncomfortable so we simply sit in silence and stare like we’re stuffed.

The opposite problem is Zoomers who behave as if they are invisible and that no one else can see that they aren’t prepared, appropriately dressed, or actually paying attention. Last week I was on a committee Zoom when a woman wearing a “dog mommy” tee shirt very distractedly cuddled and cooed over her designer pooch while we tried to discuss a software purchase. Or how about the professional-dresser-only-from-the-waist-up who was wearing a jacket and dress shirt but who absentmindedly leaned back in his chair hoisting his hairy bare leg into the camera’s view? If we had been talking on a phone neither of these unfortunate images would now be lodged in my brain.

Texting doesn’t substitute for a phone call, either. I admit that the volume of my texting has grown tremendously thanks to Covid-19, but texting for all but the most brief messages is incredibly inefficient. Conversations that if done verbally would be complete in a few minutes, drag out over silly spans of time while each of us types the words, sends, waits for the recipient to reply, and then repeats the process. Meeting texting has increased dramatically since everyone has moved to Zoom. Bored or frustrated participants now engage in robust private text conversations with their fellow Zoomers, the 2021 equivalent of passing notes during class. Another disadvantage of texting: It’s easy to misinterpret meaning because we don’t see a facial expression or hear voice inflections to know if the sender is serious, facetious, or angry.

And then there’s e-mail. Whose inbox isn’t overflowing with threaded, long, “reply all,” messages that no one will actually read? My iPhone reminds me constantly that my various inboxes are overflowing with hundreds of messages. Who has time to read all that stuff?

This week I’m picking up the phone and calling people. Talking on the phone gives us a chance to build the informal social connections that help facilitate business by engaging in a bit of polite “chat,” and enable us to better ascertain the other person’s meanings and intentions by hearing voice inflections.  Even more important, a phone call gives us all what we need most right now—practice dusting off our mothballed social skills and a live connection to another human being.

Let’s talk.




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Parliamentarians Know the Rules

Last week Americans got a lesson in the important role parliamentarians play in ensuring that organizations do things according to their established rules. Elizabeth MacDonough, parliamentarian of the U.S. Senate, ruled that a proposal to raise the minimum wage could not be part of a COVID-19 relief bill because including it would violate Senate rules. As parliamentarian, her job is to be an expert on the Senate’s complex rules and to render non-partisan recommendations to ensure that actions are legal and accurate.

Although seldom seen in the spotlight, parliamentarians are important because they are responsible for ensuring a fair, democratic, and effective decision-making process. They must have an in-depth understanding of multiple accepted codes of practice such as Robert’s Rules of Order or Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure and be experts on the specific rules of a group’s articles of incorporation, bylaws, and procedures. On campus, becoming a parliamentarian would be a useful adjunct to the skills of chiefs of staff, top executive assistants, or for people who work with boards of trustees, university foundations, or alumni associations.

Parliamentarians don’t just operate in the non-profit world. Corporations and entities such as the NCAA often employ them to be present during board of directors’ meetings to be certain rules are followed so that decisions made by elected officials, whether they are corporate leaders running an annual shareholders meeting, officers of local civic groups, or members of boards of trustees, will hold up under scrutiny.

Becoming a parliamentarian doesn’t require a specific degree, but it does demand experience in working with democratic bodies, completing an intense course of study, passing an examination, adhering to a code of ethics, and possessing a talent for memorizing and recalling detail.

The American Institute of Parliamentarians has an extensive web site of resources including courses and information about how to attain the Certified Professional Parliamentarian credential. Of particular use at this moment is a document they have posted entitled, “Opinions for Electronic Meetings,” that addresses how to handle numerous of the unusual governance situations many groups are currently facing.

Other training resources include the National Association of Parliamentarians and several U.S. universities, including some that offer classes online as part of continuing education programs.





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Revoking A Recognition

Revoking an honorary degree is a very serious and highly unusual occurrence but that is exactly what Middlebury College, an elite private school in Vermont, did in January.

Rudy Giuliani, the college’s commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient in 2005 was presented the honor for his leadership as mayor of New York City after the September 11 World Trade Center attack. He was stripped of this recognition by the school’s trustees as a result of his role in the January 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol (

Things like that are never supposed to happen, but humans being human, sometimes they do. When a recipient’s behavior reflects poorly on the school and becomes a public relations liability, revoking a recognition can become necessary. This is especially true in the case of honorary degrees, academia’s highest honor, one of the purposes of which is to enable the school to voluntarily affiliate with a prominent person and thereby bask in the reflected glory of his or her achievements.

Human behavior can also cause problems with a variety of other prestigious recognitions. One school is currently dealing with how to disassociate from a well-known alumnus who was recently arrested for running a child pornography ring, being involved in human trafficking, and dealing drugs. As a prominent businessman, frequent and generous major donor, and former alumni president, his name is on plaques, pavers, and the rolls of distinguished award recipients across campus.

Another school faced the embarrassing removal of the name of an alumnus who was a beloved high-profile sports celebrity from its new alumni center after the man reneged on a multi-million-dollar pledge. His bravado had ignited and led the campaign to design and build the center, a project that while needed, was far beyond the reach of institutional budgets. The school saluted his enthusiasm by prematurely naming the building in his honor. Turns out he never had the money and the university was stuck trying to pay for a building it could not afford.

While the vetting process for honorary degrees is usually careful, and selection committees deliberate thoughtfully before choosing recipients of annual awards, past performance doesn’t necessarily guarantee that today’s honorees will be the enduring positive examples that trustees and committees hope for.

Give Yourself an Out

Just like well-crafted emergency plans for use in case of disaster, every set of award criteria should include a written mention about if, why, and how recognitions could be rescinded. This practice can also be extended to job descriptions for members elected to campus governing bodies and advisory boards. Craft such statements in the hope that they will never be needed and set a high bar for implementation. Having a way out should never be so easy that the process could be overused for reasons of politics or petty disagreements.

With spring commencement only a few months away, now is a good time to review honorary degree, award, and board member criteria and consult with campus counsel to be certain you are covered in the unlikely event that yesteryear’s hero becomes today’s disgrace.

For more information about honorary degrees, see my blog post “Alexander Hamilton to Get Honorary Degree,” or order my book, Academic Ceremonies A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol available from the online bookstore at

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The Mace Was Missed

Eagle-eyed ceremony planners no doubt noticed a traditional symbol was missing from the platform at President Biden’s inauguration. The Mace of the Republic which symbolizes the authority of the House of Representatives was not present.

On a typical inauguration day, the House of Representatives goes into session, then recesses to walk as a group to witness the ceremony. The sergeant of arms, carrying the mace, leads a procession of the members of the House and stands behind them holding it throughout the inauguration. This year, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the House did not go in to session on January 20 so the mace was not used in the ceremony.

Crafted in 1841 after the British destroyed our country’s original mace when they burned the Capitol during the War of 1812, the mace has 13 ebony rods representing the 13 original colonies. It is topped by a silver eagle perched on a silver globe. It symbolizes the authority of the House and is always present when the House is in session. It is carried in to the chamber each legislative day and posted on a green marble pedestal on the rostrum to the right of the Speaker. It is occasionally presented in front of an unruly member to restore order.

Academic Mace

The tradition of mace as symbols of authority dates to the Middle Ages when mace were used as war clubs. The roots of the practice can be traced as far back as ancient Rome. An academic mace symbolizes the authority invested in the president by a school’s governing body. Much like the Mace of the Republic and the House of Representatives, when the authority is present, the mace is present. This is why the mace is an integral part of commencement exercises, when students are invested of degrees by the lawful authority of the university, and why the mace plays an important ceremonial role in academic presidential inaugurations.

While some schools possess an ancient mace, the article can be created at any time in a school’s history. Maces are often commissioned to commemorate a milestone anniversary or presidential inauguration, frequently incorporating artifacts, precious stones, and rare wood.

When to Use the Mace

The mace is used only on formal academic occasions, such as commencement, convocations, and presidential inaugurations, when participants are in full regalia and the president is involved.

Because the mace is a symbol of presidential authority as the university’s legal representative with the right to govern, it is carried in procession immediately before the president. When the mace is present, the authority of the university is present.

More information about how to use a mace on campus is available in my book, Academic Ceremonies A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol, available from CASE at


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Resolve to be Civil

January had already begun and I hadn’t decided on a New Year’s resolution. After last week’s violence in Washington, D.C., I now know what it is: To conscientiously practice civility.

I believe the uncivil, nasty, screaming, name-calling, suspicion-building, “cancelling” devolution of our culture that has been on display for the past year is a large contributor in bringing us to this moment. We have lost the important ability to listen and treat others respectfully, when we don’t agree with them and even when we do.  “I’m right, you’re not.” “I can’t win unless you lose,” is the new operating standard.

I think the little things we do personally every day add up to show a much bigger picture of who we are as a society. Our nation’s current incivility and intolerance is death by a thousand cuts because it validates and enables more of the same. This is evidenced not only by the behavior of politicians and anonymous people on social media, but in our everyday interactions with family, friends, and those in our communities.

Incivility is the check-out clerk who vigorously snarled when I absentmindedly got in the “10 items or less” grocery line with 13 things even though I was the only customer in the store. It is the aggressive driver who cuts you off in traffic waving a third-figure salute as she speeds away. It is people who leave litter in our parks and pubic places. It is the customer service representative who simply hung up on me when she didn’t know the answer to my question. It is the use of crude and demeaning language that has become ubiquitous, even among our leaders. When we engage in uncivil behavior, we contribute to eroding the foundational principles of our democracy.

I’m not suggesting that practicing civility is the magic answer to solving our serious national problems, but committing to being respectful of our fellow human beings would go a long way toward helping. We can’t make progress if we don’t or won’t listen to one another.

While I can’t control what happens on a national level, or what other people do, I can work to control myself. This year I resolve to practice civility.



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Jumping Into What’s Next

Jumping off the high dive was the final test to earn an advanced swimming certificate and I was determined to get mine, a prerequisite of my goal to become a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor so that I could qualify for future summer jobs teaching swimming lessons. At 5 meters high (16.4 feet) just the thought of climbing the diving board’s ladder (let alone jumping off) was terrifying to me but I was determined not to “chicken out.” It was the 1960s and we were in middle school. I was the only girl in the class. The boys had teased me about the test for most of the summer, certain the instructor would have to climb up to retrieve me after I burst into tears.

The jump day came and we all lined the pool deck watching our classmates and waiting our turn. I was trying to look brave but in truth, but my stomach was churning. I climbed the ladder on wobbly legs and tried not to look down. The board was longer and much more springy than I anticipated and even my slightest movement made an exaggerated bouncing motion. I edged out to the end and stood for what seemed like an hour, as my classmates stared in silence. The blue sparkling water looked to be a mile below and I felt dizzy. Suddenly, from somewhere deep inside, I felt an invisible push and I jumped myself into our town’s small group of “certified advanced swimmers” and in to an assured summer job.

Covid-19 has once again brought me to the high dive. As the person responsible for a university president’s events, an official residence, high-profile meetings, conferences and special events, the virus has stopped my job in its tracks. With nothing but uncertainty looming on the horizon and the announcement that we won’t have any major events for the coming year, I’ve decided it is time to jump into my “what’s next.” I wasn’t thinking about leaving, but being parked at home with nothing to do feels like being locked in a cage. Gone is the addictive adrenaline rush of my previously hectic lifestyle and the accompanying satisfaction of working hard to help advance the university. So, after contemplating the situation, I jumped. I resigned my position, sold my house, and relocated to another state.

In the coming months, I will be devoting full attention to my own company, Harris Etiquette, Events, Protocol. I’m converting my popular business etiquette and protocol courses to virtual applications, will be adding new training and resources for people in business and academics, releasing my new book about managing an official residence, and writing my blog. I’ll also serve as the Vice President for Membership of Protocol and Diplomacy –International Protocol Officers Association (PDI-POA). When the world returns to large public gatherings, I will resume my on-site consulting services advising schools on how to stage board of trustees’ meetings, presidential inaugurations, commencements, and milestone events such as capital campaign kickoffs. I look forward to once again being invited to speak at professional conferences. In the meantime, I am available to answer questions and to serve as an argument-resolving resource when debates arise about arcane topics like what regalia is appropriate for an academic marshal. I invite you to visit my web site at, e-mail me at, or find me on Facebook or LinkedIn.

I’ve made the jump and I’ll work hard to become an advanced swimmer in the sparkling new waters in which I’ve landed.






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Hybrid Commencement Needs Essentials

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 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.

Commencement Address

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.”