Students choosing to decorate hats or mortar boards in different ways at Central Michigan University’s commencement might be violating the ceremony rules on proper attire.
Yet those students might not know of their wrongdoing until it’s too late due to the vague language of the rule.
In a document sent out to graduates, listing information about the commencement committee, there are no direct rules on graduation attire. Under the “Ceremonial Behavior and Protocol” section in the document, the rule states that graduates cannot attach anything to their apparel which would take away from the spirit of the event.
Jim Scott, professor of business information systems, member of the Academic Senate and one of three head marshalls who oversees commencement, admits that the rule left up to interpretation.
“It is vague,” Scott said. “The big point is that I have a 1,000 kids at my commencement to get graduated and my job is to get them graduated, to have a ceremony that is dignified, that everybody can walk away from and be proud they were there.”
Commencement is typically a happy day for students, making the jobs of Scott and the other marshalls a bit easier. However, they are still responsible for enforcing commencement rules, one being the rule regarding ceremonial behavior and protocol.
Scott stressed he has never encountered a time where he has had trouble with a student regarding their apparel and added the rule might be a little over the top.
“If anything, I would say the rule is more strict than it ought to be,” Scott said. “Writing a rule does not change somebody’s behavior.”
No determination for religious, political speech
Students sometimes pick famous quotes, messages or other kinds of art to put on their hats as they walk to pick up their diplomas. Yet, there is always the possibility a student could have a Bible verse, political message or something else that could potentially be offensive to someone in the audience.
The rule does not specifically outlaw either of these representations, but it could be argued that either could take away from the event.
When asked how he would enforce this, Scott said in the 24 years he has served as marshal during commencement ceremonies, he has never had to worry about enforcing the rule.
Scott added that out of the five universities he has worked at, CMU graduates have been the best behaved when it comes to commencement ceremonies.
According to the fall 2013 commencement program, three head marshalls in addition to 21 other marshalls served during commencement.
One of the other head marshalls is Roger Coles, interim dean of the College of Graduate Studies. Like Scott, helping to keep the ceremony sacred and making sure commencement remains at a high level of prestige, is a priority of his.
“There has to be some decorum, there has to be some formality,” Coles said. “I’ve regretfully had to kick out some drunks. We had a wrestler who decided to take off his robe and walk up with his wrestling outfit on, and I stopped that.”
Coles mentioned other times where he had to take action, obvious occasions where he needed to step in, but he said he is very careful with how he approaches those situations.
Implied vs. concrete rules
There are a number of rules the marshals make sure graduates follow.
Some include no food or drink, no alcoholic beverages or no disruptive behavior. Students who violate any of these rules are either asked to stop what they are doing or asked to dispose of food or other banned items. If they refuse, they are asked to leave.
Josh Barnhart, a senior from Laingsburg, plans on graduating in the spring of 2015 and has a general interpretation of the rule.
While the rule does have some general meaning, Barnhart said it would be helpful if it were to be edited or rewritten for clarification purposes.
“I would assume that would mean not to attach any personal paraphernalia or anything related to a group not necessarily pertaining to Central,” Barnhart said. “The rule could be clarified so that you know for sure if you could wear something pertaining to an RSO, Greek Life or to an academic fraternity.”
Midland senior Bryant Robbins is graduating in May 2015 and said the rule regarding dress at commencement is unclear.
He added that while he may have his own view of the rule, others could interpret it differently.
“Some people may misinterpret the rule or take it the wrong way,” Robbins said. “It’s very vague and if someone got in trouble for that, just for their misrepresentation, then that is not very fair.”
Coles said there is not one clear view on how to enforce these particular situations, which are subject to the opinions of the marshals who preside over the ceremonies.
In a situation where a student arrived sporting something offensive, Coles said he would work with the student sporting the offensive attire the same way he would with students who try to sneak in alcohol – he would dismiss them only if it was an obvious violation.
“Will I kick them out of the convocation center? Probably not,” Coles said. “Would I suggest they come back and sit with me? Yes. I would probably do that to attempt to modify their behavior a little bit rather than actually kicking them out.”