Graduation Rituals, Regalia and Traditions

A woman and man in baccalaureate and doctoral regalia

By John Lacey

When students don caps and gowns for graduation this month, they are taking part in a tradition that began at Oxford University in 1432—60 years before Columbus set sail across the Atlantic. The first baccalaureate ceremonies hundreds of years ago continue to inspire the dress of today’s graduation ceremonies.

While clinging to venerable rituals, the campuses and institutes of the University of Tennessee also have forged their own, newer traditions. From the “bloody brick ceremony” at an agency of the Institute for Public Service to the recognition of first-generation college graduates at UT Martin, the university celebrates and honors students in a rite of passage in unique ways. We highlight some of these celebrations and traditions.

College of Veterinary Medicine graduates posing after the traditional Graffiti and Grub graduation tradition.
An honors grad shows off her Animal Science pin. All CASNR grads wear maize tassels.
red paint spattered square of white bricks
The traditional “blood brick” is given to graduates of the National Forensic Academy at UT’s Law Enforcement Innovation Center.

Video: Dan Anselmenr, LEIC and NFA Traing Consultant explains the origin and meaning of the “blood brick” tradition.

Dennis Haskins (aka Mr. Belding from the TV show Saved by the Bell) returned to UTC to finish up his degree in 2015.
UT Space Institute graduates pose in front of the iconic Woods Reservoir in the background.
UT Martin graduate, Blake Stevens, is recognized as a first generation graduate (a new tradition at UTM).
Former Vol basketball player Wayne Chism holds his tassel during commencement at UTK. Photo by Wade Payne
Seniors enjoying Aloha Oe on Ayres Hall lawn. Photo by Nick Myers.
Seniors enjoying Aloha Oe on Ayres Hall lawn. Photo by Nick Myers.

Baccalaureate Regalia

The history of the mortarboard cap remains a bit of a mystery. One legend, according to historian Helen Walters, dates back to ancient Roman law that stated a slave was deemed free by being allowed to put on a cap. And so at Oxford University in the Middle Ages, the cap of the master of arts signified independence, and the wearer was bound to don the cap at all university ceremonies.

The tassel is fastened to the top of the mortarboard or cap. Oxford lore maintains that, in 1340, students mended their hoods with colored thread that represented their studies. The “tassel ceremony,” or the moving of the tassel from right to left to signify graduation, is a more modern phenomenon.

In the 12th century, wearing long robes or gowns distinguished the high society and wealthy from the lay folk. Gowns also were useful on a chilly day. Both students and faculty wore gowns to classes in the United States up until the Civil War.

Honor Cords and Stoles
Universities borrowed the wearing of cords and stoles from the early Christian church as clergy would wear them to signify being set apart or achieving special significance. That tradition continues to this day as both honor cords and stoles can be worn to signify academic achievements or special significance. Stoles, in particular, represent organizations that students have been involved with during their time at the university.

Originally, the diploma was handwritten in Latin on thin sheepskins, and at many institutions the student had to pay the university president for his signature.

Orange fireworks light up the night above Ayres Hall lawn during Aloha Oe at UTK.
walking seniors
The UT Martin annual Senior Walk and Grand Finale is ritual that began in 2005.
Beloved performer Dolly Parton receives an honorary degree from UT Knoxville.
Being the Macebearer at UTC commencement is the most distinguished honor for a faculty member.
Dr. Allen Battle has been at most every graduation at UTHSC since the 1950s.
Greek letter organization members display their colorful stoles and caps.
Nursing students at UTM posing during the pinning ceremony and the ritual of lighting the Nightingale Lamps.
UTK students posing with their orange leis after Aloha Oe. Photo by Tom Owens
The Mace at UTHSC.

Master’s and Doctoral Regalia

Master’s and doctoral students wear tassels on the left signifying their previous degrees. Doctoral tassels are the only ones that should be gold- or metallic-colored.

The academic hood comes from humble beginnings as a head-warmer worn by monks in medieval England (were the ancient buildings were quite drafty). By their length and color, hoods now symbolize the wearer’s school, degree and field of study.

Doctoral gowns, the most elaborate of academic gowns, distinguish their wearers as having achieved the highest level of scholarship.

Chevrons are distinctive to doctoral students and represent the academic discipline of the wearer. They originated as part of the medieval costume.

Trim Color
Trim color is another medieval carry-over. Colors informed lay folk of the wearer’s importance and set them apart as having achieved a higher status.

Harris, Alice L. Academic Ceremonies: A handbook of traditions and protocol. CASE, 2005.
Walters, Helen. The Story of Caps and Gowns. New York: E.R. Moore, Co., 1939.