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Campus traditions

It’s a truism: universities are steeped in tradition. But while some campus customs have survived the ages, others have fallen into disfavour as the university itself changes with the times.


From solemn graduation ceremonies rooted in the Middle Ages to silly but enduring student rituals like food fights and pumpkin tossing, campus life is big on traditions. Even though many have died out or changed beyond recognition, and despite continuing debate about the relevance of others, traditions remain a centrepiece of campus life. They endure because they are important symbols for students and their alma maters, and are a way of nurturing loyalty at a time when universities are increasingly dependent on alumni for financial support.

The best traditions – the ones that survive – are about bonding and belonging; they create an enduring link between the student and the institution. They can be light-hearted, like the annual food fight between first- and second-year students in the quadrangle of the University of Toronto’s Trinity College, or as solemn as a convocation ceremony full of Latin phrases, arcane procedures and colourful regalia.

What’s important, says Derek Drummond, professor emeritus of architecture at McGill University, is that they create a lasting bond with the university. Alumni relish traditions that stand the test of time.

And so do students. At the University of Manitoba, the official theme song of the U of M Students’ Union was written in 1940 and is still sung today. Entitled “The Brown and Gold,” it urges, “Forward to success, wisdom, happiness.”

Some traditions are important rites of passage. Take the X-ring, for example – perhaps the ultimate symbol of belonging of any Canadian university. The ring is presented to students graduating from St. Francis Xavier University in a formal ceremony held each year on Dec. 3, the feast day of the school’s namesake. “You can identify [StFX graduates] easily by their X-Rings, the unmistakable emblem that links you to fellow Xaverians around the world for the rest of your life,” proclaims the landing page of the university website aimed at prospective students.

“Students go nuts,” says Sam Mason, president of the StFX Students’ Union. “The buzz on campus is intense. Students are more excited for this ceremony than they are for graduation.”

Julie Mikuska, excutive director, alumni affairs, at the University of Manitoba, says that until recently, many universities didn’t pay attention to the overall “university experience,” nor actively try to encourage bonding. But now, universities have come to see their traditions as a way of standing out.

Ryan Rodrigues, associate director of alumni outreach at the University of Western Ontario, agrees. “Universities are in spirited competition with one another to attract the best students, the most accomplished faculty and – most critically – financial support, including the vital ongoing support of alumni,” he says. Meaningful traditions can give a university cachet. “Certain traditions may influence the decision to select one university over another.”

Traditions help create relationships with students as soon as they arrive on campus, says Mark Hazlett, executive director of the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education. “Traditions are about building affinities and relationships – when they are potential students, while they are students, and continuing that when they become alumni.”

Some traditions, like the X-ring, build a strong bond with the university. Others are picked up by incoming students to better identify with their chosen career, says Alexandre Chabot, secretary-general of Université de Montréal. For example, it’s not uncommon for business students to come to class in a jacket and tie, adopting the uniform of their future peers. Universities reinforce this tendency, especially in the professions, with symbolic gestures, like formally giving stethoscopes to new medical students and lab coats to pharmacy students and by supporting the tradition of an iron ring given to graduates of Canadian engineering schools.

But, most traditions aren’t what they used to be. Neither are universities. Those that have survived – such as frosh week, homecoming and convocation – tend to be inclusive of the diverse student body in the university of today. Long gone are the days when students were mostly white, mostly male, mostly upper middle-class and mostly of one religion.

Many of the lost traditions died a natural death because they were deemed sexist, class-based or crude – the panty raids, the engineering students’ Godiva rides, the severe hazing in sports teams. Other traditions – remember leisurely lunches at the faculty club? – just don’t fit with the ever-busier life of professors, many of whom do much of their work off-campus nowadays.
Convocation is probably the most enduring of university traditions, and the one that has changed the least from its roots. The University of New Brunswick, the oldest English-language university in Canada, still uses Latin in its graduation ceremonies and diplomas. While convocation is no longer an intimate ritual – Western’s convocation now includes 10 ceremonies in the spring and three in the fall, honouring a total of more than 7,000 graduates – a graduate from 50 years ago still would recognize the ceremony today, complete with its caps and gowns.

“The reference points are still those used in the 1950s,” says Mr. Chabot of Université de Montréal. “What is said has changed, but the protocol of the ceremony has not.”

Convocation remains a unifying moment in the life of the student body, he adds. It’s a time when, whatever their cultural origins or other differences, the graduating students come together to receive a degree that recognizes their academic achievements. “This is an important milestone, one the students care very much about.”

To be sure, there was a time in the 1980s “when convocation didn’t seem as important,” recalls Mr. Drummond of McGill. “Now, it’s huge. Students and family come en masse.”

There was one generation that drove many old-time traditions into the ground, and that was the baby boomers. They poured onto Canadian campuses in big waves in the 1960s and ’70s, and the arrival of that cohort, with its large numbers of women, middle-class students and new ethnic groups, marked the death of the “old boys’ club” mindset.

The arrival of the boomers coincided with the societal changes wrought by feminism, the birth-control pill and the anti-war movement. Huge increases in enrolment on many campuses weakened feelings of cohesion that supported old traditions.

“I think it’s undeniable that the 1960s marked the end of a particular kind of university,” says Bryan Palmer, Canada Research Chair for Canadian Studies at Trent University and author of Canada’s 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2009).

Out went respect for the hierarchy and traditions, says Dr. Palmer; in swept co-ed dorms and demands for student power. Even convocation was considered an optional ceremony for students in those days, although it later revived.

Many old traditions died with barely a whimper. Dr. Palmer was a rebellious first-year student at the University of Western Ontario’s Huron College in 1969, a time when students were required to wear gowns to class. He and one other student decided they didn’t want to wear gowns, so one day they just stopped. Dr. Palmer says he faced no repercussions. Within five years, he figures, no one was wearing them.

While radicalism as we knew it then is largely absent from today’s campuses, traditions that don’t stand the diversity test are being called into question. This year, students at StFX officially opposed the automatic appointment of the local bishop to the position of chancellor. Mr. Mason, the students’ union president, says it’s an issue of equal access and equal opportunity: even if the bishop is qualified to be chancellor, his automatic appointment disqualifies women, homosexuals or married men from ever holding the post. (The issue remains unresolved. Cindy McInnes, StFX communications manager, says the board of governors takes the students’ concerns seriously and “agreed to develop a process for considering all aspects of the issue.”)

Hazing is one tradition that has become taboo – officially, at least. Laura Robinson, a former championship athlete-turned-author who campaigns against hazing, says the practice, or fear of it, is still a factor on campus. The initiations are rough, she adds. “If it was just going out for dinner, who would be afraid of that?”

Many traditions that haven’t died have morphed into something completely different and have been joined by new traditions that suit today’s social standards. One poignant example is that many universities now mark the Dec. 6 anniversary of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, in which 14 female engineering students were gunned down at École Polytechnique, by holding memorial services on campus.

Even enduring traditions are evolving traditions. There was a time when Trinity College students had to wear their gowns, not only on campus but also whenever they ventured into the city, says Sylvia Lassam, the Rolph-Bell Archivist at the U of T federated college. (They were fined 25 cents if caught un-gowned). Gown-wearing endures to this day, but only for the 6:30 p.m. serving of the Wednesday evening dinner. The so-called “high table dinner” generally attracts about 50 people, including a “high table” of college officials. It’s also a tradition to wear robes to chapel.

“Frosh week” has morphed into “welcome week” at most schools. And initiations for freshmen students have transformed into community fundraising events; Shinerama now involves students from 60 universities and colleges across Canada raising money for the Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Welcome week often includes a homecoming component – again, to help bond alumni to the university. This year, says Ms. Howland, UNB reinstituted the name “homecoming” and moved it to the fall to create a sense of community between the student body and alumni.

At the end of the day, it’s the meaningful traditions that involve everybody that survive best. Or, the ones that are fun for all. At UNB, students have been tossing pumpkins off the roof of Harrison House, one of the residences, every Halloween since 1973. Over time, the Great Pumpkin Sacrifice has grown into a week-long event. Students, it seems, couldn’t do without it.

E-plant, University of Saskatchewan

“E-plant,” a now-defunct tradition, expressed the rivalry between agriculture and engineering students at the University of Saskatchewan. Engineering students would kidnap an agriculture student and duct-tape him to a large letter E, which would then be “planted” in a public spot on campus. The agriculture students would try to free the duct-taped student; the engineering students would try to prevent them from doing so. The result was a general melee. Rules governed what was acceptable, but they didn’t prevent engineering students from covering themselves in Vaseline, to make it difficult for them to be caught.
Source: Melana Soroka, University of Saskatchewan.

Catholic ceremony, Université de Montréal

In 1953, freshmen students at the Université de Montréal underwent an extensive, university-sanctioned initiation ceremony that showcased the university’s ties to the Roman Catholic Church. After a mass at the St-Germain church in Outremont, the frosh were directed to Chez Valère, a restaurant, where they were handed a boxed lunch prepared by student dieticians. They ate their lunch on Mount Royal, then went to a movie, followed by a speech by the rector, who was a bishop. After being invited to kiss the ring of the university’s chancellor, Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, students signed a register, sang a school song and O Canada, and received the cardinal’s blessing.
Source: Forum (Université de Montréal), Sept. 5, 2000.

Daniel Drolet
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  1. isabel.sullivan -barry / January 13, 2011 at 13:08

    when my daughters graduated from Wellesley College in the Massachusetts, there were many traditions for each year – they ranged from tree planting one year to hoop rollong as part of xcommencement.

    I can also point out that a Harvard Graduation is like a coronation.I,ve been able to attend more than one.

  2. visitor / January 17, 2011 at 09:17

    The engineering Iron Ring is not handed out by universities. The Corporation of the Seven Wardens Inc. administers this, completely separate from any university tradition.

  3. Peggy Berkowitz, Editor of University Affairs / January 17, 2011 at 11:18

    It’s true, as the previous commenter says, that the iron ring worn by many Canadian engineers is part of the Obligation Ceremony. The ceremony is not connected to any other engineering organization nor to any university, “although many of them support the idea … and may participate in the administration of the ceremonies.” See for more. We have revised the article accordingly.