In a relaxed ceremony punctuated by yells from a few proud families and the occasional child, 242 doctoral degree students received their ceremonial hoods in Rockwell Cage last Thursday.
"You have moved from the status of our students to the status of our colleagues," said Chancellor Phillip L. Clay, master of ceremonies. Calling the event "simple, happy and informal," he was joined onstage by a slew of professors from all departments, President Charles M. Vest and Dean for Graduate Students Isaac M. Colbert.
Clay entertained his audience with a faculty fashion show that displayed hoods and robes from other universities, and gave a brief history of the garments' medieval origins. At that time, he said, professors wore the heavy robes to keep themselves warm in drafty buildings. "Ours today are considerably lighter," he noted. The hoods were originally used as head covers; at other times, they were used as shoulder capes or bags for alms.
The robes and hoods that have survived in the United States "have no general purpose," he said, "but they are very pretty."
Clay went on to invest each graduate with his or her hood, assisted by Dean Colbert and a faculty representative from each department. Samuel J. Keyser, professor of linguistics emeritus, read the name of each recipient.
One graduate truly stood out from his colleagues. Andrew "Bunny" Wong had attached a pair of cardboard rabbit ears to his mortarboard. As Bunny left the stage after receiving his hood, Keyser quipped, "You should hop off."
Families attending were obviously proud, straining to see the new graduates and climbing on chairs to photograph them, but loud verbal displays were rare. One little girl did, however, take advantage of President Vest's authorization for children to "comment on these proceedings in any way they see fit." After the clapping finished for one graduate in media arts and sciences, she loudly sung her praises.
One woman was rather disgruntled by the audience's reserve. "Don't they know this isn't nothing?" she was overheard to say. "Where are these kids' families?" Soon afterward she jumped up with a loud "Yo! That's mine!" when a certain young man received his hood.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 12, 2002.