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An insider’s guide to installation

“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 WCU mace with its image of old Madison Hall.

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.

The mace
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.

The WCU seal.

The seal
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.

The WCU medallion identifies Cullowhee with a star on an outline of the state.

The medallion
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.

Academic regalia
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.

WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher in his academic regalia and wearing the university medallion. The pink of his hood signifies his doctoral degree in music.

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.

  • The cap
    While the debate rages over the origins of the academic cap, one thing is for sure: Archival images from Oxford prove that graduates have been wearing them for well more than 300 years. Mortarboards, worn flat on the head with one corner of the square facing the front, are acceptable accompaniment to all academic gowns; tams and beefeaters (a variation on the tam but with a stiff rim) can appear with doctoral gowns. All caps should include a tassel, the color of which indicates degree and may correspond to hood trims; doctors in all fields may wear a tassel of metallic gold. Impress your friends: Although some academics march bareheaded, head coverings are part of academic regalia and the costume is not complete without it.
  • The hood
    If you believe that hoods are for heads, then award yourself an honorary degree. While today’s hood is actually more of a colored scarf worn draped over the shoulders, they began as “head-warming cowls on medieval monks’ cloaks,” according to Harris. If you know how to read them, hoods telegraph the wearer’s school, degree and field of study through length and color. The basic rule of thumb is that the bigger and fancier the hood, the higher-ranking the academic. The hood’s interior lining displays the institution from which the wearer received his or her degree. The outer trim, usually velvet or velveteen, indicates the wearer’s academic field. Impress your friends: More than 30 degree-granting institutions are represented by purple and gold.
  • The gown
    If you lament the absence of long robes as everyday wear, blame tight breeches, which pushed gowns out of fashion in the 15th century. Academics, along with judges and clergy, have retained the look. The cut and trim (or lack thereof) of the gown indicates degree. The bachelor’s gown is a simple, unornamented robe with straight-bottomed sleeves; unusually long, draped sleeves typically indicate a master’s gown. Doctoral gowns, full and flowing with bell-shaped sleeves, are most elaborate of all. Ornamented with front panels and three bars on each sleeve, these gowns typically are black, although they also can indicate discipline or be a color adopted by the institution. Impress your friends: Intended to last a lifetime of ceremony, even used doctoral regalia can sell for hundreds of dollars. (Fancier versions are available for rent.)

– Compiled by Jill Ingram from information in “Academic Ceremonies: A Handbook of Traditions and Protocol” by April L. Harris, interviews and WCU institutional information.

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Photos | WCU News Services

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