Thursday, May 9, 2013
student in multicultural attire at commencement

Academic Traditions

Current-day academic gowns are based on the clothing of medieval monks, and each gown helps reveal the wearer's education and ranking.

The gowns worn today in commencement and inauguration ceremonies were everyday dress in the 12th century. By the 17th century, however, gowns were worn by only clerics, those in the law professions, and academics. Many institutions in Europe still wear regalia on a daily basis, unlike in the United States where it is worn primarily for major university events like commencement.

There is an Inter-Collegiate Code which sets out a detailed uniform scheme of academic regalia that is voluntarily followed by many, though not all institutions entirely adhere to it. This code covers the gowns and hoods but does not include the cords which are a UNH-based tradition.

University Symbols

Mark Huddleston and Nancy Kinner

University Mace

The University’s mace, a symbol of authority, traditionally is carried at the head of academic processions by the chief faculty marshal or senior faculty member.

Used to represent power and authority, the mace is commonly seen in paintings in the late Middle Ages as an ornate, decorative symbol of the authority of the monarch. As educational institutions were organized, the ruling monarchs granted some of their authority to each institution. To symbolize the authority, the institution was allowed to have a mace. This tradition has evolved to symbolize the authority an academic institution has to grant degrees and maintain high educational standards.

The traditions of the academic mace and medallion at the University of New Hampshire date to 1983, when President Evelyn Handler instituted these ceremonial artifacts. The academic mace and medallion are housed in Special Collections and Archives at the Dimond Library.

The University of New Hampshire’s mace is sterling silver with a hammered texture. Its torch-like, tapered body features three silver seals including that of the State of New Hampshire, the Town of Durham, and the University. As a University symbol of the “Granite State,” the mace is embellished with chips of granite, and the handle has two bands of New Hampshire wood.

The Medallion

The academic medallion is worn by the president of an institution of higher learning at important ceremonies such as Commencement as a symbol of office. UNH's academic medallion is made of silver and features the University seal.


The hood is descended from cowls once worn by monks. The length, lining, and trim of the hood reveal the wearer's alma mater, area of study, and degree.

The hood is worn draped over the shoulders with the lining exposed. At the University of New Hampshire, the lining of the hood is blue and white, the official university colors. The color of the hood's trim reflects the wearer's field of study, and the length of the hood reveals the level of degree earned. For example, a master's degree is indicated by a three and one half foot hood, while a doctoral degree is signified by a four foot hood.

The Intercollegiate Code prescribes the following faculty colors
for the binding of the hood:

Agriculture Maize
Arts, Letters, Humanities White
Business Administration, Commerce Drab
City and Regional Planning Brown
Communication and Information Studies Gray
Economics Copper
Education: Light Blue
Engineering Orange
Fine Arts, Architecture Brown
Human Resources Management Dusk
Journalism Dark Crimson
Labor and Employment Relations Peacock Blue
Law Purple
Library Service Lemon
Medicine Green
Music Pink
Nursing Apricot
Oratory-Speech Silver Gray
Pharmacy Olive Green
Philosophy Blue
Physical Education Sage Green
Public Administration Peacock Blue
Science Golden Yellow
Social Service Citron
Theology and Divinity Scarlet

UNH Commencement Cords and Sashes


Presidential Scholars Gold Cord
McNair Fellows Blue Cord
University Scholar White Cord
Golden Key Blue & Gold Sash (blue side out)
Honors Program Blue Stole with White UNH Seal
SHHS – Alpha Epsilon Delta Purple & Red Cord
OT Phi Theta Epsilon Navy & Gold Cord
Phi Beta Kappa Pink & Blue Cord
Pi Sigma Alpha Red, White & Black
Sigma Alpha Lambda Navy, Black & Gold Cord
Kappa Delta Green & White Cord
Student Senate Blue & Silver Cord
Military Veterans Red, White & Blue Cord
Lambda Pi Eta Red & White Cord
UNH Society of Women Engineers Green & Yellow Stoles
Residential Advisors Green
International Affairs Dual Major Multicolor


Academic caps are derived from the pileus, a close-fitting cap originally worn by the ancient Romans and adopted by the church in 1311. There are two primary styles of caps: the Oxford, which is the familiar mortarboard, and the Cambridge, which is a beret-like soft cap.

In a 1998 article in the Harvard University Gazette, E.B. Boatner offered this insight into the history of academic caps, “One anonymous legend cites a wise old Greek who decked his students out in mason’s sackcloth robes with mortarboards because ‘their destiny is to build. Some will build cities, some will build lives; perhaps one of them will build an empire. But all will be builders on the foundation of knowledge.’”

Originally published by:

UNH Today