View from the Loge: March 26

March 26, 2024

View from the Loge

March 26, 2024

Last week I went to Boston to meet SMPA alumni and attend the investiture of Jay Bernhardt, the new president of Emerson College, my alma mater. In addition, for the first time ever, I own official academic regalia. With it I can participate in GW’s formal graduation events (new professional role, new professional robes). Last fall I attended events for president Granberg’s investiture. 

College president investitures, like college graduations, require academic officials to wear formal regalia. The color of the caps, sashes (hoods), cords, and sometimes robes is dictated by custom. The shape of the sleeves on the robes, whether or not there are stripes, the shape and type of headwear, and just about everything else is similarly coded. There’s an entire semiotics of academic attire. (This is a much more fun take that faculty will probably enjoy more than students).

The history of regalia dates back to the 12th Century. The whole thing is modeled on monks’ robes. The robes were likely originally worn to keep warm in drafty towers and the hoods were initially designed to be big pockets in which to carry food.

GW has little in common with 12th Century European monasteries, and Emerson has even less. I was just as warm in my jacket and tie when presidents Bernhadt and Granberg were sworn in as those in flowing robes, hoods and impractical hats were. Both events had buffet lunches, so there was no need to stuff a quail or hunk of cheese in my pockets. When I wear my heavy gown at graduation (with squared off closed ended sleeves with holes for my hands indicating my highest degree is an MA, my maroon and gold hood which means the degree is from Arizona State University, and white tassel on the mortar board indicating the degree is in political science) it will probably be hot out. I will have no need to stuff a quail or hunk of cheese in my outfit. We will all be standing on the National Mall, probably on a hot day, in long black robes, cosplaying 12th Century monks. It all seems silly.


The basis for academic regalia predates the nation state system and capitalism by hundreds of years (often tied to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648). GW was founded in 1821 and Emerson in 1880. Higher education, GW and Emerson have changed a lot in the intervening centuries.They are likely to change a lot in the coming years as the numbers of students going to college declines and the types of skills and support students need change. 

Which is one reason I like the impractical robes and silly hats. They are rocks in an otherwise quickly moving stream. The robes, hoods, hats, cords, and the rest, tie GW to Emerson, both to other schools around the world, and they tie all of those schools to a centuries-old scholastic tradition. They are a reminder that what we are doing now is part of something academics and students have been doing for nearly 1000 years. Our present is connected to a long past, and will hopefully continue well into the future. As attention spans shorten to near vanishing, and news cycles are measured (optimistically) in hours, the patient work of seeking and sharing knowledge endures. 

Regalia once worn for entirely practical reasons helps maintain a community of scholars, and an idea of scholarship for the sake of seeking truth and understanding, that transcends our moment and ties all us in academia together.

In a month or so I will put on my heavy black robe, hood and hat and go stand on the National Mall to celebrate not just our graduates, but also the tradition of scholarship in which we are privileged to participate.