Office of Ceremonies

Symbols and Meanings

Did You Know?

UW graduation in Husky Stadium with the four columns

The four Ionic columns that grace the stage at Commencement and Freshman Convocation are replicas of the columns that once stood at the entrance to the first Washington Territorial University, built in 1861. The original columns now reside in Sylvan Grove. Read more about the Four Columns.

There are four key ritual elements that are seen at University of Washington academic ceremonies. They express our history and traditions. They symbolize the ties that bind us to those who planted the seeds of higher education here 150 years ago. They remind us of all those who have since nurtured those seeds, and of the scholars of ancient times. It is their vision and dedication that carries us now into the future.


The most obvious feature of our ceremonies is one that we share with universities (most notably Oxford and Cambridge) dating back to the Middle Ages—academic regalia. When European universities were taking form in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the scholars usually were clerics as well, and they adopted garb similar to that of their monastic orders. Buildings were cold and drafty, so caps and warm, floor-length capes with hoods were necessities.

As the control of education passed from the churches, the garb was modified in various ways, and there was great diversity in color and style of cap, gown, and hood worn at the different institutions. The custom of wearing academic dress was brought to America in colonial times, but it was not until 1895 that a standardized code of academic dress was established and followed by most colleges and universities in the United States. Gowns and hoods worn by the members of academic procession are distinctive for each degree.

Faculty members wear doctoral gowns during Freshman Convocation

UW faculty members wear doctoral gowns during Freshman Convocation (click on photo to enlarge).Katherine B. Turner / Admissions

Doctoral gowns, which may be black but are frequently quite colorful, are distinguished by the three velvet chevrons on each sleeve. Master’s and bachelor gowns are generally black, with the master’s gown displaying long, square-cut tails on the sleeves and bachelor gowns having pointed or straight-cut sleeves. Doctoral hoods are slightly longer than the master’s degree hoods and all hoods are lined with the colors of the conferring institution.

Caps may be either mortarboard or tam in style, though generally the tam is reserved for doctoral degrees. Both cap and gown are symbols. According to legend, the privilege of wearing a cap was the initial right of a freed Roman slave. The academic cap, therefore, has become a sign of the freedom of scholarship. The flowing gown has become symbolic of the democracy of scholarship, for it covers clothing that could indicate rank or social stratum.

The Mace

Prof. Ronald M. Moore carries university mace

Former University Marshal, philosophy professor Ronald M. Moore, carries the University Mace (click on photo to enlarge).

University of Washington ceremonial occasions begin with the entrance of the University Mace, carried by the University Marshal. The mace symbolizes the University’s governing authority and is present only when the president and regents are in attendance. It signifies the proceedings have official sanction.

The tradition of the mace derives from medieval times in England, when the mace was held by a bodyguard for dignitaries at ceremonial functions. As an ancient symbol of authority, it reminds us that universities are custodians both of the enduring traditions of learning and of the power they bestow upon those who come to learn. It is also a reminder that the learning process has not always been comfortable and easy.

Read more about our University Mace.

The President’s Medallion

The tradition of the president’s seal medallion began in 1958, when Dr. Charles E. Odegaard was inaugurated as the University’s twenty-fourth president. The medallion is worn at official ceremonies, such as commencement.

Weighing approximately 4-3/4 ounces, the medallion is 2-1/2 inches in diameter, three sixteenths of an inch in thickness, and plated in ten-carat gold. It is suspended from a similarly gold-plated chain. On one side is the University seal with a facsimile of the four columns from the original territorial University building and the University Motto, Lux Sit, which means “let there be light.” On the other side are the words, “Seal of the President of the University.”


Gonfalons representing the UW schools and colleges during graduation

Gonfalons (or banners) representing UW schools and colleges are carried during each graduation ceremony. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The gonfalons—or college banners—are a recent addition to the University of Washington’s commencement and freshman convocation ceremonies and they add a wonderful element of color and pageantry to the event. The gonfalon is a long banner that is suspended from a crossbar. The name derives from medieval Italy, where “gonfaloni” was the name given to community meetings in Florence. Each neighborhood had its own flag and coat of arms and the word gonfalone eventually came to be associated with the flag.

At the University of Washington each one of the 17 schools and colleges has at least one gonfalon and the “gonfalonieres”—the carriers of the banners—precede each school or college during the processional into the stadium. The College of Arts and Sciences, due to its size, has six gonfalons and the Graduate School has four—two for the doctoral candidates and two for the master’s candidates. At the end of the ceremony the gonfalonieres form an “avenue” of gonfalons along which the stage party recesses.