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Symbols and Traditions

Chancellor’s Medallion

Chancellor's medallionIn 1994, the University of Tennessee’s, Knoxville campus introduced the chancellor’s medallion as part of the official academic regalia for those who serve and have served as the chief executive of the state’s flagship campus. The original medallion was redesigned in 2012. It bears an image of Ayres Hall, the university’s most iconic landmark. Banners on the chain bear the names of the seven previous university chancellors. The banner closest to the medallion bears the name of the current chancellor. The wearing of a seal or coat of arms with academic regalia by the heads of universities began in the 16th century in Italy, with a chain and seal of office being worn by rectors, chancellors, and presidents of universities.


MaceThe mace, a clublike staff used in academic ceremonies is carried by a macebearer, who leads the academic pro­cession.

Carvings and decorative designs adorning the head of the mace are symbolic of the institution’s mission in serving the people of Tennessee. A keystone atop the head signifies the position of the univer­sity as the head of Tennessee’s educational system. Flame carvings represent the torch of learning and service to others as depicted in the university’s volunteer symbol. Enam­eled designs of the iris, Tennessee’s state flower, cover the entire club head, signifying the university’s position as Tennessee’s state university and land-grant institution.

The mace was first carried at the University of Tennessee in 1960–61.

Academic Dress

Professors in processionalThe tradition of wearing a distinctive academic costume originated in the medieval universities of Europe, where regulations governing gowns, hoods, and caps were enforced from the 14th century onward. As standardized by 20th-century agreements, American academic regalia indicates the highest degree earned by the wearer, the institution that conferred the degree, and the field of study in which it was obtained.

Bachelor’s gowns are designed with pointed sleeves and are worn closed. Master’s gowns have oblong pendant sleeve ends, while doctoral gowns have a velvet band facing the front opening and bell-shaped sleeves trimmed with three velvet bars. Master’s and doctoral gowns may be worn either open or closed.

Hoods were probably worn originally for warmth over shaven heads but now are exclusively decorative. Their length, lining, and trim vary; the longer the hood, the higher the degree it represents. The color of the velvet trim around the border of the hood corresponds to the field of study in which the degree was earned. The hood’s lining displays the colors of the institution from which the degree was obtained.

Mortarboard caps for all academic degrees are similar, although soft caps are sometimes worn with doctoral robes. Black is the color used most often for American collegiate academic gowns, hoods, and caps, but there are exceptions. Graduates of Harvard, the nation’s first university, wear crimson robes; and graduates of European universities have traditional gowns whose details, colors, and trim may vary substantially from American custom.

academic bannersAcademic Banners

The faculty marshals in the academic procession carry banners–one representing each college. These banners were especially designed and made for the university’s commencement exercises by Professor Richard Daehnert of the Department of Art, now the School of Art.

The pageantry of medieval universities is reflected in the wearing of academic robes embellished with rich fabrics and bright colors, for modern ceremonial occasions. The commencement banners contribute to this brilliant visual display and derive their form from the heraldic standards carried in medieval festivals.

Individual colleges are identified through standardized colors representing the degrees awarded in each. All banners contain black, the color of academic robes, and incorporate a contrasting hue in the geometric pattern for each one. As each academic unit contributes uniquely to the composition of the university, so each banner also contributes to the visual composition when all the banners are seen together.

The banners are constructed using the same techniques as pieced quilts, relating them to the rich historic textile tradition of quilting in southern Appalachia. Interpreted here in contemporary material (nylon banner cloth) and bold geometric design, this fabrication method established the dimensional patterned grid and light-reflective surface characterizing the banners.

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