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Convocation Address 2020
Gordon Rakita Headshot

Gordon F. M. Rakita

Distinguished Professor

Professor of Anthropology Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work

College of Arts and Sciences

Academic Rituals, Regalia, & Shared Governance


Hello. This is an odd way to receive this award and indeed an unusual format for a Convocation ceremony. However, the unusual format does nothing to change my gratitude for this award.  I am deeply humbled and grateful to receive it. 


Like other recipients of awards this year and in years past, I have many people to thank.  But most of all I want to thank my family: my wife, Cally, and my sons Nicholas and Sam.  All three of them have supported me, made me laugh, pointed out to me when I was being foolish, and generally put up with me in their lives.  I could not have accomplished much of anything without them.


I think it is also important, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, to extend a very heartfelt thank you to some folks who often go unacknowledged.  I want to thank all the staff and employees at UNF.  Many of you are on the front lines continuing to do your job despite the added complications of the pandemic.  The campus is as beautiful as ever. The buildings are just as well maintained.  Supplies continue to be purchased.  University police continue to patrol.  Coffee shops and cafeterias are open and serving.  Our networks, and applications, and IT systems continue to be managed and when things break, the Help Desk staff, and C-Techs are there to help. Pay checks continue to be deposited. The university is a small city and the staff and employees of UNF have kept us running despite the pandemic and recent budget cuts.  We all owe them a debt of gratitude.  Us doing our jobs is dependent upon them doing their jobs and we have them to thank for the support system and environment within which we work. 


As some of you know, in my research I explore the mortuary and ritual behaviors of prehistoric peoples, especially those that lived in the ancient desert West.  As my far brighter colleague Rick Phillips once said, I study “what dead people thought about dead people”.  I suppose you cannot get more esoteric or more “academic” than that. 


Regardless, understanding human rituals and ceremonies is of great interest to me.  Rituals are fascinating events.  Rituals are typically set apart from everyday life and encourage focus and attention.  They tend to be scripted, following a formal liturgy or set sequence.  They are communicative; they express ideas and concepts and they often do this through the heavy use of symbols and repetition.  Rituals have the power to bridge the divide between the sacred and profane worlds and in doing so, they both highlight and smooth over divisions within a community.


Of course, being an Anthropologist, you might think that I am describing the ceremonies of a long dead prehistoric culture or some untouched indigenous tribe in a remote land.  But I am also describing this convocation ceremony and those like it that take place on campuses around the world.  Think back to prior convocations or graduations; were they not special events set apart from everyday life?  Did they not command or compel our attention?  Convocations and graduations are scripted and communicative.  We use symbols and language to communicate shared values during these events.  We use these ceremonies to re-invigorate our commitment to collective ideals and principles.  And one of the most potent ways we communicate at these ceremonies, indeed one of the ways we establish these events as rituals and not ordinary, run-of-the-mill events, is through the clothing that we wear.


At today’s convocation, despite its virtual nature, you will see many of us –the University President, the Faculty Association President, and myself - wearing traditional academic regalia.  These robes and hoods and cords and funny hats tell you that this is a sacred rite.  So why this form of dress?  Where did it come from and what does it symbolize?  Why do faculty across the globe don such strange regalia when celebrating our most sacred rituals?


Modern academic regalia is an anachronism from the origins of universities as institutions.  Universities were established in the Middle Ages as an outgrowth of monastic and cathedral schools.  The first universities as we would recognize them were established in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries CE at places like Bologna (in 1088), Paris (in 1150), Salamanca (in 1218), and Prague (in 1348).  These early universities were both an extension of earlier ecclesiastical institutions and took on medieval guild-like structures with their emphasis on apprenticeships.  Gowns, with cloaks and hoods, were one of the monastic traits that university faculty maintained, even when such apparel became less fashionable outside of the academy.  Indeed, the robe and hood were retained and prescribed in order to distinguish academics.  This tradition has continued into the present.  At Oxford, for example, robes were still required apparel for students sitting exams into the 1960s.  


Academic regalia symbolizes the rich history of universities in the Western world.  Each set of regalia additionally symbolizes something about the person wearing it.  The presence and length of the hood and the shape of the sleeves indicate the highest degree conferred upon the wearer.  The colors of trim on the robe and hood represent the general field of study, green for medicine, brown for fine arts, light blue for education, dark blue for philosophy.  The interior lining of the hood contains satin in the colors of the degree granting institution – my own, the red and silver of the University of New Mexico – go Lobos!

Our regalia with their symbolism, the funny staves the marshals carry, even the music played at convocations and commencement make these events as much rituals as a Catholic mass, a Zuni Shalako, and the Jawosi ritual of the Kayabi.  But beyond knowing what degree an academic has attained, or from what university, what else do our academic regalia symbolize?  Consider for a moment what other public officials wear robes.


Back in 1950, Historian Ernst Kantorowicz stated :

“There are three professions which are entitled to wear the gown: the judge, the priest and the scholar…It signifies the inner sovereignty of those three interrelated professions: they should be the very last to allow themselves to act under duress and yield to pressure.”


He further stated:

“Why is it so absurd to visualize the Supreme Court Justices picketing their court, bishops picketing their churches and professors picketing their universities?  The answer is very simple: because the judges are the court, the ministers together with the faithful are the church, and the professors together with the students are the university…they are those institutions themselves...”


Put another way, universities are one of the few public institutions in our society that should be governed and run by the inmates.  Like the feudal monasteries and guilds upon which we are modelled, we are self-organizing entities that should jealously guard our decision-making rights.  


Our “bosses”, department chairs and directors of schools, cannot tell us what to study.  We can allow our research agenda to follow whatever thread might interest us.  While my chair can assign me to teach a particular course at a day and time of her choosing, she cannot control the structure and content of the course.  We academics, like our guild and monastic forebearers are self-governing.  We have our own committees and we elect fellow faculty members to serve on them. We select our own leaders and an administrator who ignores the will of the governed does so at their peril.  This is distinctly different from corporations and other such organizations in our society.


While universities had their origin in feudal economic and political systems, modern day corporations and capitalism, emerged during the mercantilism of the 16th century.  But universities do not share a corporation’s profit-making goals.  This history, and the current capitalist setting of most universities, leaves the academy with no small amount of cultural mismatch between academic sensibilities and contemporary culture and ethos.


Despite being viewed as static, conservative, ivory towers – and certainly they can be that – universities are also centers of new idea generation, often innovative and progressive ideas.  Indeed, the innovation of universities springs from the self-organizing nature of universities.  If we take as a given that faculty and students are the university and that the purpose of a university is to generate knowledge and understanding and share them with the public, then we must accept as critical the interaction between these two groups in classrooms, laboratories, studios, libraries, seminar rooms, and even the community. Faculty and students’ pursuit of new knowledge and understanding is the raison d'être of the institution.  All other activities of the university must be in service of that pursuit.


Now I am not so naïve as to leave that last sentence unqualified.  A modern university is no longer the same sort of organization or in the same social/economic/political context as, say Charles University of 700 years ago. Capitalism, the Enlightenment, and democratic governments have emerged, and universities are embedded within our modern society.  Our own institution is a public university with significant governmental oversight through a state Board of Governors and a legislature. Numerous state and federal regulations must be complied with and constrain what we can do and how we do it.  We have to engage in marketing to entice people to our campus.  We need lawyers to keep us out of jail, accountants to keep us solvent, IT professionals to manage and protect our information systems, HR offices, grounds keepers, maintenance personnel, and all manner of managers and directors and vice presidents.


But my point is that despite the cultural disconnect between the faculty on the one hand and the administration and staff on the other, the faculty should have a significant role in the running of the university, especially any part of that university which impinges on the shared pursuit of knowledge. This is why we describe the structure of authority and decision-making in universities as a “shared governance” model.  The faculty - recognizing our need for a robust infrastructure and context for the pursuit of knowledge - share decision-making authority with others. 


This shared governance structure contains that cultural tension between faculty on the one hand, and those with whom we share authority. What is the faculty’s prerogative and what is the domain of the non-faculty leadership of the university?  I think most faculty would cede many decision-making aspects of the modern university.  Yet the parties sharing governance are often at odds with each other, not just here at UNF but at universities across the globe. As Derek Bok  stated:


“There is much talk today of the need for quick, streamlined mechanisms for making decisions to exploit new opportunities in a rapidly changing world.  Shared governance and faculty participation, it is said, are expensive luxuries that enterprising universities can no longer afford if they wish to keep up with the competition.”


In my time at UNF, I have heard a variety of rationale for not involving faculty in decisions. However, there are reasons to encourage and even seek out faculty engagement in governance and decision-making.


For example:

  • Faculty are uniquely qualified to identify how actions will impact research and teaching efforts
  • Also, unlike other employees, faculty, especially after tenure, are often committed to an institution for the rest of their careers. Thus, they are heavily invested in the success of the university and have the most to lose from un-wise decisions.
  • Moreover, faculty often have concerns for broader institutional or societal issues and are not nearly as self-serving as often portrayed.
  • Consulting with faculty often avoids or at least tempers the negative blow-back from faculty when decisions are promulgated from on high.
  • Finally, divisions of non-academic from academic matters are artificial as all matters at a university will typically have at least some level of impact on academics and vice versa, academics will frequently impact non-academic matters.

I think this last point is particularly germane; we are all in this together.  If the academic enterprise fails, then the university fails.  But without the infrastructure, resources, and support of the non-academic portion of the university, the academic enterprise fails just as surely.  Consider some of the fine, well-respected institutions that we academics admire but which have failed to financially thrive in recent years.  Now consider some of the for-profit institutions that have succeeded financially, yet academically – and perhaps ethically – are hollow.  Universities like ours, whether we like it or not, need to attend to both the academics and the non-academics and that means navigated the disparate cultures of academics and non-academics.


So that takes me back to ritual.  One of the amazing things about ritual is that it can unite disparate groups.  Yes, they can highlight divisions and hierarchy, but they can also remind us of our commitment to shared goals, worldviews, ethos, and mores.  Rituals bring us together in communion – a word closely related to “community”.  Academic rituals like graduation and convocation and the regalia we wear, remind us all of the history of academia and the centrality of the faculty and students to the nature of the university.  It is no coincidence that President Szymanski, does not wear the three-piece suit of a corporate CEO at this ceremony, but rather the robe and hood of the academic that he is.  That regalia reminds him and us, and the non-academic members of the university community that he is, first and foremost, a UNF faculty member.  Deans, who recommend the conferral of degrees upon students at graduation do so wearing regalia; hopefully reminding them that they too are faculty and should think like faculty and not like corporate management.  Even the University Trustees and students wear academic robes as symbols of their roles in a university, not a business.


But we need not rely entirely on rituals and ceremonies to promote understanding between faculty and staff and administration.  As an Anthropologist I have to believe that the more members of our two cultures interact, the more we will understand each other and be able to work collaboratively together on the shared governance of this institution.  We need to preserve and increase those opportunities for members of these two cultures to get together, discuss issues, and together seek solutions.


So, I would like to leave you today with some recommendations.

  • Faculty: if you have an issue or gripe or a suggestion, reach out to someone in the administration and ask for help. Don't jump to conclusions about intention but find out as much as you can and seek solutions that everyone can live with.
  • Also, don't assume that the administration is malicious or capricious. But also make sure they understand your point of view. Don't forget that we have different cultures.
  • Non-faculty: If you have an irate faculty member in your office or on the phone, don't assume that they are crazy or unreasonable. Try to understand why they are upset. Often, it's because we care about something fundamental to our academic culture - and that's what this place is all about.
  • Also, don't assume that we won't understand the constraints and issues you are dealing with. We often step out of our ivory towers, you might be surprised at what we know, and we might just be able to help you come up with a clever solution.
  • Everyone: Look to find those aspects of the university's structures that differentially and negatively impact the least powerful of us and work pro-actively to dismantle or change them. We all want to work in a university where we all can succeed and grow.
  • Seek to understand where others are coming from and practice empathy.
  • Also, try to find and exploit opportunities to interact with members from the other culture. Our cultural difference can only be overcome through mutual understanding.
  • And finally, everyone, go out of your way to thank someone each day. I get to practice this last suggestion right now as I say….

…thank you all for this incredible honor.