John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What’s in a Ceremony?

October 20, 2014John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Colleges and Universities need to pay more attention to their ceremonies and to get them right.  Ceremonies matter:

  • Ceremonies move people.
  • They entertain them.
  • They bind them together.
  • They remind and focus them on what really matters.
  • They confirm the values of the institution.
  • They give people hope.
  • They remind people of their past and they point to the future.
  • They are aspirational
  • They are inspirational
  • They leave people wanting more of the same
  • They are a metaphor for how the institution is run.

I am thinking about this as I write because I delivered a keynote address today at the inauguration of the fourth President of the Robert B. Miller College, in Battle Creek, Michigan, Dr. Evon Washington Walters. It was a big deal, a beautifully choreographed ritual.

As I really got into thinking about what I could possibly say to add to the meaning of this ceremony I realized that an inauguration is more than a ceremonial ritual that launches a new era of leadership. The medieval university knew what it was doing when it created this ritual. It is a ritual that binds the new leader to the city so that the two become inextricable. The fate of one is the fate of the other.

An inauguration is also a wedding of sorts. I have been thinking a lot more about the power of wedding rituals since my wife, Betsy Barefoot, and I performed our first wedding ceremony this spring for the son of our beloved accountant and his wife. When you preside at a ritual you really have to think through what you are trying to convey is the whole point of this powerful exercise.

An inauguration is a wedding because the new leader takes a vow to have and to hold his/her new partner, for better or worse—and the whole point of the ceremony is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy to augur in an era of the “better.” The leader is marrying his institution and its host community.

An inauguration is a wedding because the guests, we hope, will have the kind of experience after which they will bestow gifts needed by the institution.

And an inauguration is also a commencement. It is includes multiple homilies with dignitaries failing to resist the temptation to give the audience advice (myself included).

And an inauguration is a ritual where we tell the new leader to “go forth.”

And where we ask the whole community present to support this newly blessed union.

An inauguration is also a reunion, where friends, allies, supporters of and investors in the new leader convene to pay respect, to celebrate the accomplishment of the new leader upon her/his elevation to this leadership position. Thus, inaugurations should be joyous occasions, also like weddings.

And an inauguration is a commencement.

The institution gets to begin again, to renew, confirm, affirm its course.

The new leader gets to mark his/her passage to this new stage.

And the new leader gets advice from the commencement speaker just as the graduating students do at graduation.

And inaugurations are reunions for many of their participants just as are commencements.

The inauguration I participated in today was all of these elements. Nice job Robert B. Miller College.

This ceremony, of course, gets me thinking about how well we do ceremonies in our institutions, especially for the kinds of students I care about the most, and their families: the arriving students (first year and transfer) and departing students (graduating).

What ceremonies do you have for first-year students (hopefully in addition to unauthorized hazing rituals)?

  • Convocations? (Another medieval ritual)
  • Convenings for discussions of common/summer readings?
  • Processions, perhaps with candles, through or by sacred institutional structures (under arches, around special campus locations, etc)
  • Orientation’s special welcomes, activities, parties
  • Wilderness rites of passage (like Texas A and M Fish Camp)
  • First day of class rituals with the professor and syllabus—virtually none of them memorable
  • First day of practice for a team sport, marching band, ROTC
  • First “rush” meeting for Greek letter social organizations

Too bad we don’t do many or any of these for transfer students.

These ceremonies, rituals have been around for so long. Some may have outlived their usefulness. Some may need to be reinvented.

We (as individuals and as institutions) all need human rituals to bind us together in community. And if we don’t provide them intentionally for our new students they will create their own, and we may not like as well what they create.

I think we need to get better at ceremonies, especially for the majority of our students who don’t live on campus; who don’t attend sports activities, who don’t attend full-time; who don’t attend centuries old tradition bound institutions.

What are you doing? How well is it working?

How can you get your ceremonies right? The College I saw today got theirs right.

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