Something Old, Something New

May 1, 1999

Carol J. Schlueter

When members of the Class of 1999 march together across the floor of the Superdome on May 14, they will be returning to Tulane's oldest commencement tradition: the unified ceremony. The university celebrated its first unified commencement in 1908 at the French Opera House in the French Quarter, says registrar Earl Retif.

Other universitywide commencement traditions, however, are few and far between. Last fall, newly arrived President Scott Cowen wanted to change that and he asked the university to look for ways to make this pinnacle ceremony more special.

Thanks to a huge amount of legwork and research by Retif, Debbie Grant, executive director of university communications, and staff members across both campuses, this year's combined commencement ceremony will mark the beginning of several new Tulane traditions.

The university marshal will lead the commencement procession carrying Tulane's first-ever academic mace, which was specially designed this year. Cowen will be the first Tulane president to wear a green robe designed to represent Tulane. On his chest will be a new chain of office that replaces an older, well-worn version. A new president's medal has been designed and will be presented by Cowen during the May 14 ceremony.

The medal is awarded at the president's discretion to individuals who have distinguished themselves by their actions and contributed in some manner to the well-being of Tulane. A new flag displaying the university seal and gonfalons (banners representing each school and college) are other results of the efforts to inject new pomp into the commencement ceremony.

A gift from an anonymous donor in the community helped make the new regalia and commencement activities possible, Grant said, adding that the university developed the new ceremonial items to enhance Tulane's commencement traditions.

"We're reviving a lot of old Tulane traditions and beginning some new ones," she said. "With Scott coming in as the new president, we wanted to look for ways to draw the campus community closer together, and the unified ceremony is a good way to do that."

The project meant an enormous amount of work for Retif, who has been more immersed in commencement in the past nine months than in his entire career. His work began with visits to seven institutions "including Princeton, Yale and Georgetown"to view their commencement artifacts. "So many of our peers that we try to emulate have long had these things, and they're proud of their traditions," he said. "They were amazed that we'd gone this long without acquiring these trappings. "Tulane didn't exploit the long history it has. We took it for granted, and this is a way not to take it for granted."

He praised Newcomb College for vigilantly keeping its commencement traditions alive in many meaningful ways, such as the ceremonial daisy chain. "Newcomb is the one school that kept tradition and history alive, and felt there was value in that. We're playing catch up as a university, but they've been there from the beginning."

He and Grant both emphasized the importance of investing greater substance and relevance in the commencement ceremony for the sake of the students. "We want to build pride on the part of students and parents. It's all about them and not about us," Retif said.

Artifacts before the fact Here's a brief preview of Tulane's new ceremonial regalia that will be unveiled at the May 14 commencement ceremony. Look for complete coverage of the ceremony, including photographs of these items, in a special issue of Inside Tulane.

"The Tulane academic mace"
The academic mace is a historical amalgam of the regal scepter of rulers and a weapon-like instrument known as a mace. Its first use dates to 1385 at the University of Vienna. An academic mace is traditionally carried in procession whenever degrees are conferred or when the faculty is assembled in formal academic dress.

Tulane's new mace is designed of silver and African blackwood. Atop the mace is the "pelican in her piety," a symbol from the university seal. The heraldic shield from the seal adorns the front side of the mace's shaft. Inspired by Newcomb Pottery, the reverse side of the mace features a stylized magnolia blossom and the Newcomb College pottery mark.

A pattern of entwined ivy is etched on the base as a symbol of the Medical College of Louisiana, antecedent to Tulane. The names and dates of service of the 14 presidents of Tulane are engraved on a spiral silver band around the wooden shaft. Jonathan Hils, master of fine arts degree candidate, designed and sculpted a prototype for the mace. The wood was donated and turned by master wood-turner Gorst Duplessis.

"The presidential chain of office"
This piece, representing the president's authority as head of the university, features the university seal suspended from a chain. The chain has two motifs, a stylized TU shield, drawn from an architectural detail on the fagades of Tilton Hall and Robert C. Cudd Hall, and oak leaves.

"The presidential costume"
This specially designed doctoral robe is tailored in deep green with chevrons and panels of black velvet, outlined in sky-blue silk cord. The heraldic shield from the university seal is embroidered on each of the front panels. Fourteen embroidered details decorate the velvet hem as a historical reference to Tulane's 14 presidents. The satin inside the doctoral hood is green and blue. The presidential hat is an eight-cornered black tam with a gold tassel.

"The president's medal"
Designed by Franklin Adams, professor emeritus, the front of the medal features a sculpted TU symbol with the words "Tulane University" and "The President's Medal" surrounding the symbol. The recipient's name, the name of the incumbent president and date of awarding will be on the reverse side.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000