Commencement traditions

Commencement Weekend at SMU is a mixture of time-honored practice and modern refinements, from the custom regalia to the Rotunda Recessional. Here is a roundup of the traditions and symbols that make up the University’s 21st-century approach to these ancient ceremonies.


Baccalaureate Service for Undergraduate Candidates

The Baccalaureate Service is a religious ceremony held in McFarlin Auditorium the Friday evening before May Commencement Convocation. This is a small and intimate service that features a special sermon for undergraduate candidates and their guests.

Wearing full regalia, candidates process into McFarlin and are seated together. Weather permitting, students line up on the Main Quad in the order of their arrival.

Rotunda Recessional

The Rotunda Recessional follows the Baccalaureate Service. Undergraduate candidates, led by faculty and alumni marshals, march through the front doors of Dallas Hall, across its Rotunda and around to the University’s Main Quad. This tradition marks the new graduates’ symbolic departure from the Hilltop and welcomes them into their new phase of membership in the SMU community – their lives as alumni.

The march is a bookend to another symbolic tradition, the Rotunda Passage. Before Opening Convocation, held the day before their first day of classes as first-years, students process through the back doors of Dallas Hall, across the Rotunda and onto the Main Quad as new members of the SMU student body.

Commencement Convocation

On Saturday morning, the all-University May Commencement Convocation assembles degree candidates from all of SMU’s schools and professional programs in Moody Coliseum. Students and faculty, dressed in full academic regalia, march to the ceremony to processional music.

Doctoral candidates and honorary degree recipients are hooded, Commencement speakers address our newest class of candidates, and the University president confers degrees. At the conclusion of the ceremony, “Varsity” is played and a prayer is said for the new alumni.

Diploma Presentation Ceremonies

Wearing full academic regalia, graduates are individually recognized in school or departmental ceremonies.



The wearing of regalia during graduation is a custom that dates to the 12th century and the early universities of Europe. These universities did not have their own buildings when they were first established and conducted their studies in nearby churches. A typical scholar, whether teacher or student, had himself taken religious orders, so academic dress of the time echoed that of the clergy, including traditional black clerical robes. (Historians believe the robes and hoods may also have been needed to keep warm in these unheated and often drafty buildings.)

This apparel became more widely adopted when gowns were established as the official dress of academics in 1321. Later, universities created variations of the gowns and hoods to differentiate among various grades of scholars.

In 1895, representatives of U.S. institutions established the Intercollegiate Commission to standardize the practice of academic dress among American colleges and universities. These guidelines are called the Intercollegiate Code of Academic Costume, or the Intercollegiate Code for short. The most recent revision took place in 1986.

Bachelor’s Candidates

SMU undergraduate regalia includes a blue mortarboard cap with tassel, a blue robe and a red “Stole of Gratitude,” to be kept by the new graduate after the robe is returned, and traditionally presented to an individual who had a profound influence on his or her education. Scholars believe that the mortarboard was adapted from the biretta, a similar-looking hat worn by Roman Catholic clergy, which was used in the 14th and 15th centuries to identify students, artists and other “learned youth.” Tassels are worn on the right side of the mortarboard until students are instructed during the ceremony to move them to the left. This ritual of “turning the tassel” symbolizes the candidate’s transition from student to graduate. Tassel colors signify the disciplines in which bachelor’s degrees have been earned.

Master’s Candidates

Master’s candidate attire includes a blue mortarboard with tassel, a blue master’s robe and a hood, which the candidate either rents or purchases and wears to the ceremony. The tabbed sleeves of the master’s robe echo the square-cut tail, or liripipe, of a traditional master’s or doctoral hood. The length of the hood and the width of its velvet trim indicate the academic achievement level of the wearer, while the trim’s color indicates the discipline in which the degree was earned. The color of the hood’s satin lining signifies the institution awarding the degree.

Ph.D. and Other Doctoral Candidates

Proper regalia for SMU’s Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Doctor of Engineering (D.E.), Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) and Juris Doctor (J.D.) candidates includes a blue doctoral robe with three red velvet chevrons on each sleeve and an eight-sided red tam with a gold doctoral tassel. Hoods are placed on doctoral candidates during the ceremony when their degrees are awarded. The doctoral hood is a gift from the University to the student.

SMU Trustees

The dark red Trustees gown includes one velvet chevron on each bell sleeve and velvet panels down the front and around the neck. A Trustee’s hood with a squared bottom is attached to the gown.


The Presidential Collar and Medallion

Chains, or collars, were used as badges of office during the Middle Ages. Today, they are custom-designed metal necklaces worn by university presidents as part of their regalia during academic ceremonies.

The collar designed for President R. Gerald Turner is made of bronze, and its medallion is dominated by the University seal as it appears in the floor of the Rotunda of Dallas Hall, SMU’s historic first building. The seal represents the president’s responsibility to the sound education of each and every student.

The bail, which joins the medallion to the chain, represents the bond between the student body and the faculty. The chain and its clasp represent the joining of the desire to teach and the eagerness to learn demonstrated by SMU’s faculty and students.

The University Mace

Staffs that call groups to order are as old as civilization itself. Today’s ceremonial maces descend from the medieval armor-piercing club topped by a bludgeoning ball. These weapons swiftly acquired symbolic meaning; by the 14th century, a mace carried at the front of a formal procession required bystanders to note the authority and integrity of the event. By the 16th century, the spiked heads had evolved into decorative orbs.

The tradition evolved among European universities to present maces, which symbolized their protective power and independence, on solemn occasions. SMU’s mace-bearer, the president of the Faculty Senate, leads formal processions carrying this reminder of the university’s history and status.

The 22-pound mace currently in use at SMU is linked to the inauguration of President Willis M. Tate (1954-72) and is now known as the Tate Mace. The 57-inch staff features a 10½-inch orb that represents the University’s worldly authority and echoes its neoclassical architectural style. The orb is impressed with the SMU seal and encircled with its motto, Veritas Liberabit Vos (“The truth shall make you free”). Surmounting the orb is a cross painted in SMU red, a reminder of the University’s religious heritage.

(History based on a citation prepared by Bonnie Wheeler, associate professor of English and director of Medieval Studies)

The Howard Lantern

The Howard Lantern is dedicated to the late Professor Lorn Lambier Howard, SMU’s chief marshal emeritus from 1978-87, in honor of his role in shaping the traditions and protocol of the University’s modern-day academic ceremonies. Designed in 2008 and crafted from steel, aluminum and water glass, the lantern symbolizes the Dallas Hall Rotunda. The University’s motto is engraved around the lantern’s base; the words to “Varsity,” the SMU alma mater, encircle its top band.

Each year during the May Baccalaureate Service, this lantern is handed down by the senior class president to a representative of the junior class – a symbolic passing of the light that sustains our University.

Sections of this article were compiled from SMU’s Commencement Convocation program.