Gastbeitrag: „Revolts, Pandemics, and Regalia – a Brief History of Canceled Ceremonies“
Als eine kleine „Zwischenlektüre“ für die Ostertage hat uns unser geschätzter Freund und Gastkommentator aus den USA Henning Schröder, ehemaliger Vice-Provost und Dekan der Graduiertenausbildung an der University of Minnesota, dankenswerterweise seine „kurze Geschichte abgesagter Feierlichkeiten“ zur Verfügung gestellt – das nicht nur, aber natürlich auch mit Blick auf die derzeit so zahlreichen Absagen in Zeiten von Corona. Wir wünschen viel Freude beim Lesen!
Revolts, Pandemics, and Regalia – a Brief History of Canceled Ceremonies
In recent COVID-19 updates, the president’s office at the University of Minnesota announced that graduation ceremonies planned for May 2020 will need to be canceled, postponed, or “socially distant.” This is truly sad news for our students, their friends, their relatives, and the entire university community. Similar decisions are being made at institutions across the United States. Caps and gowns will have to stay in their closets – the coronavirus thwarts regalia! The virus took over the stage in the US while I was in the middle of writing a piece on the complete disappearance of pomp and circumstance from German academic life. Reading it, I am sure, will not provide any solace to those who won’t be able to walk the stage this spring. But I do hope for some distraction from the global news cycle by diving into history.
Revolutions in Germany tend to go only halfway. The king gets a gentle slap on the wrist, but his head is usually safe and doesn’t end up on a pike. So, when I became a university student in 1977, it should not have come as a surprise to me that professors were still the unchallenged rulers in the mysterious land called Academia. The reforms following the student revolution in the 1960s had tiptoed around their privileges and powerful positions. For many years, German universities continued to be run by an old boys’ network with departmental fiefdoms in which, as an underling, you had to prove your worth through obedience rather than excellence or independent thinking.
This sounds really awful, doesn’t it? Yes, it does, and it was part of why I came to America—to the land where professors picked up their office phones themselves and didn’t have secretaries to shoo unwelcome petitioners back across the moat before pulling up the drawbridge.
But to say that American universities are free of feudalistic traditions would be grossly wrong. Just listen to this, taken from Yale’s manual for presidential inaugurations:
At 2 pm the inauguration ceremony begins. During the ceremony, colleagues from other universities will bring greetings. Symbols of authority will be presented to the new President, and he will be formally installed into office. The President will offer his inaugural address. Other elements of the ceremony will include: a poem written for the occasion; an anthem with a text chosen by the new President and set to music.
Symbols of authority? A poem? How about knight games on the campus quad or, if you prefer ancient over medieval, gladiator fights in the football stadium?
More concerning than all this ridiculous pomp seems to me the fact that professors in the United States have been reduced to the role of court jesters. Increasingly, university presidents are selected by a group of proud non-academics often called regents, a Latin derivative that fittingly connotes their status as kingmakers. Faculty have been sidelined in the hiring process, and presidential search committees – as recently reported from the University of Wisconsin – often no longer include faculty or academic staff. If they are lucky, there will be “listening sessions” in which their voices may be heard but hardly taken seriously.
With all the criticism that can be rightfully heaped on the German system, it would be completely unthinkable for an external committee to install a retired general or “entrepreneur” as university president or, for that matter, to let the appointee pick a poem for the inauguration ceremony. Presidents, rectors, and other senior administrators can’t be forced upon the academic community. Any “symbols of authority” are only presented to them after they survive a confirmation vote, usually in the university senate. Even if some members of the faculty still enjoy their status as “Herr Professor Dr. habil.” a bit too much, strong faculty governance has had its merits in preventing the corporatization of higher education in Germany.
“Under the regalia, smell of past millennia” (Unter den Talaren, Muff von tausend Jahren) was the slogan that kicked off the West German student revolt in 1967. In the end, the system wasn’t toppled, and professors remained powerful but in a more participatory, democratic environment. The revolution’s most visible effect was the complete disappearance of caps and gowns from German university campuses. Just airing them out apparently didn’t get rid of the reactionary odor—not surprising since the “millennial smell” was a reference to the Third Reich in which most professors had willingly served and that according to Nazi propaganda was supposed to last one thousand years.
Luckily, caps and gowns in America are free of that historical burden. I look forward to seeing students and faculty wear them again at post-coronavirus graduation ceremonies!
Dieser Artikel wurde erstmalig am 20.03.2020 im Blog des Academe Magazine veröffentlicht.