Answering the question “what’s the weirdest accoutrement employed at commencement?” takes a bit of consideration.
Is it the sheer volume of tassels? One wonders which has been deprived more—the Southern grandmother’s formal living room drapes and throw pillows or the strippers’ pasties working the Route 22/322 corridor in Pennsylvania.
Or is it the regalia hood and the colors associated with particular disciplines? (I am offended as a fine arts degree holder to have to wear baby-poop brown. Why does music get to wear pink? Entirely unfair.) And everyone knows that master’s degree regalia sleeves have a distinct practical advantage over doctoral robe sleeves. In the long recesses of fabric, one has a place for keys, iPhone, Altoids and, if you dare, a flask (just be mindful of the Jumbotron cameras). The idiosyncrasies of the regalia alone could be another article.
So, what is it? What’s the weirdest accoutrement at commencement? The mace. Mace? What? What is that? The sister spice to nutmeg? No, no, no. The mace is the ornate, clublike—or some might describe it as the phallus-shaped object—carried by someone at the beginning of the procession. Knowing nods—yeah, what is that? And more importantly, why?
The mace originated in the ancient Near East, and its depiction can be seen in art dating back thousands of years. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, maces were a weapon to keep order among the ranks and physically protect the ruler. Now maces are a symbolic vestige of governing authority and power while pointing to the necessity of peaceful, dignified service to the government or institution, in the case of higher education. Used during the official ceremonies such as commencement, convocation and presidential inaugurations, the mace is carried by an individual possessing the highest rank either by position, honor, election or longevity and standing, such as the president/chancellor, faculty marshal, Faculty Senate chair, the longest-serving faculty member with the highest academic rank or the highest-achieving student.
Nearly every higher education institution has a ceremonial mace, with designs specific and unique to its institution. Usually, the mace’s design references institutional architecture, official seals and emblems, symbols, dates, mottos, and founders. Typically, a mace has three parts: a finial, a head—sometimes in multiple parts (often including a sphere, globe, flame, crown or box-shaped element)—and a shaft. Finials and heads are usually made from metal and may include inlays of enamel, semiprecious stones and ceramic medallions, but they also can be of wood or acrylic. The shaft is typically tapered and can be inlaid with a metal ribbon encircling the surface with the end punctuated by a small knob.
While institutional practices vary, traditions for carrying, handling and storing the mace are upheld with seriousness and vigor. When carrying the mace in a procession, the bearer uses two hands and rests the mace over the right shoulder (this is preferred, but some carry it upright parallel to the body). When the bearer reaches the platform or stage, the mace is placed upright in a stand next to the podium. When not in use, the mace typically rests horizontally on its side in a display case located in the building considered the seat of authority (typically the president’s office or the Board of Trustees’ conference room). Occasionally, retired maces are on view in the institution’s library or museum. Most institutional websites include a page featuring the mace and describing its history and symbolism.
The cost of designing and fabricating a mace varies widely based upon the institution’s choice of designer and materials. The cost can range from five to six figures with funding privately secured through philanthropic giving.
European Heraldry and Royalty Inspired
Eccentric Forms and Shapes
Tops Larger Than a Human Head
Long (five feet or more)
Heavy (more than 20 pounds)
Send me pictures of your institution’s mace, and perhaps next year we can do a best/worst of college and university maces competition.