“A university can exist without the social froufrou,” wrote Mary Kemper Gunn in her “Guide to Academic Protocol,” “but its standing in the world of education and its significance as a force in the progress of the nation are celebrated by its academic ceremonies.” WCU will conduct its own such ceremony at 10 a.m. Thursday, March 29, at the Ramsey Center with the formal installation of David O. Belcher as its 11th chancellor. Following is a reference for the ceremony and its props and costumes.
The formal installation ceremony
Installations (sometimes called inaugurations) are an opportunity for the university community to come together to recognize new leadership and the ideas and opportunities that accompany it. They typically are built around a theme – ours is “Defining Our Future in Pursuit of Distinction” – and comprise a number of events that showcase academics, athletics, the arts and more. “The main reason to stage an inauguration is to introduce the new president and provide a platform for the president to publicly express his or her vision,” according to April L. Harris, author of “Academic Ceremonies: A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol.” Attending Chancellor Belcher’s formal installation ceremony will be UNC system officials, politicians, delegates from other academic institutions and members of the campus and surrounding communities. Impress your friends: Academic ceremonies always begin and end with processions. At formal installation ceremonies, delegates from other colleges and universities march in procession according to the school’s founding date, with the oldest school in the lead.
Academic maces descended from medieval and earlier times, when heads of church and state carried wands or staffs to represent authority. The WCU mace, created in 1993, is therefore the symbolic representation of the university’s authority at formal ceremonies. The WCU mace is a shaft of black walnut capped with a head of polished bronze. The head is adorned with engraved mountain rhododendron leaves and bears bas-relief icons of the old Madison Building, the Alumni Tower, the original WCU seal and the University of North Carolina seal. The mace was designed and sculpted by WCU alumnus Bill Eleazer, and F. Merton Cregger, retired former director of the WCU Center for Improving Mountain Living, assisted in creating the walnut shaft. Impress your friends: The WCU mace is so heavy and unwieldy that Thomas Ross, president of the UNC system, will gesture to it rather than hand it to Chancellor Belcher during the oath of office.
Seals proclaim the authority and authenticity of a document and have been part of institutes of higher education since the Middle Ages. According to Harris, university seals, different from a university logo, are an important symbol of office and the legal mark of the school’s governing body. The Western Carolina University seal bears the image of the Alumni Tower, financed through gifts from alumni and others and erected on the occasion of the university’s centennial in 1989. As such, it is the university’s best-known landmark and a symbol of the support and dedication of the institution’s graduates and friends. The seal was designed by Debra M. Davis, Loretta Rattler Adams and Darrell Frizsell, former designers for the university. Impress your friends: Seals historically allowed even illiterate people to “read” a document’s validity.
A symbol of office, the medallion is part of the presidential regalia and should be worn during formal academic ceremonies (although never over street clothes). Fashioned of handcrafted sterling silver, Western Carolina University’s medallion is 4 inches in diameter and bears a seal designed in 1925 by art student Betty de Berry of Mount Gilead, N.C. The circular design encloses an outline map of North Carolina and a pine bough that reaches from the Outer Banks to the westernmost portion of the state, where the location of Cullowhee is marked with a star. The word “Cullowhee” and the date of the institution’s founding, 1889, complete the design, which served for several decades as the official seal of the chancellor. During Thursday’s ceremony, Joan MacNeill, chair of the WCU Board of Trustees, will place the medallion around Chancellor Belcher’s neck. Impress your friends: On the reverse side of the WCU medallion is an engraved list of heads of the institution.
Even the author of a book covering the nuances of academic regalia admits that the colorful costumes sometimes are “downright odd.” Still, scholars put serious thought into regalia – the rules governing it are strict and grew from centuries-old traditions.
Academic dress in America can be attributed to the mission of one man, Gardner Cotrell Leonard, who wanted to avoid the train wreck of European institutions, who each were creating their own regalia “in a confusing variety of fanciful garb, from oddly shaped headgear to capes of animal fur,” according to Harris. After designing the robes of his 1887 graduating class at Williams College and touring Europe to study academic costume, Leonard published an article in the Williams University magazine advocating for the adoption of a system for academic costumes in the United States. Thus called to action, representatives of Columbia, Yale, Princeton and New York universities in 1895 drafted guidelines that the majority of U.S. colleges and universities still follow (Harvard, as it will, goes its own way).
Chances are you will see a parade of regalia at the formal installation ceremony, as academics wear the regalia of the institution from which they graduated. WCU student marshals and student delegates will be in caps and gowns of white, an indication of their undergraduate status.
— Compiled by Jill Ingram from information in “Academic Ceremonies: A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol” by April L. Harris, interviews and WCU institutional information.