History & Tradition

It’s Not Just for Show

The music, formalities, and regalia all create beautiful pageantry, but the customs of Commencement are not just for show. There is a rich history to each component of the ceremony, even the cap and gown. Learn more about these customs and develop an appreciation for the traditions that connect you with the many graduates before you.

The Sounds of Commencement

Commencement songs are grand, meaningful, and very recognizable. “Pomp and Circumstance” is a part of several military marches written by composer Sir Edward Elgar. The section often played during the procession is from March 1 in D, written in 1901. It was first played at a graduation ceremony in 1905 at Yale University to honor Elgar when he received an honorary doctorate from the school.

The Indiana University alma mater is sung at the IU Indianapolis Commencement.

IU’s alma mater song, “Hail to Old I.U.” is a feature at all kinds of university events, from formal ceremonies to basketball games. The words were written by J. T. Giles and set to a Scottish tune in 1893 so the IU glee club would have a school song to perform at a competition.

The Grand Marshal

The Grand Marshals is a respected faculty member that ushers in the ceremony wearing an ornate robe, gold sash, and a velvet hat. They wield the gem-encrusted mace of IU. The mace has been a symbol of authority since medieval times.

Faculty Marshals

Faculty members may also participate as marshals who do a lot to help Commencement run smoothly. Head Marshals lead the platform party and officially start and end the ceremony.

Faculty marshals represent each school on campus and help graduates get ready for the ceremony. These familiar faces help guide the student processional and direct graduates to and from their seats in Carroll Stadium. They also sit among the graduates during the ceremony. 

Faculty Mentors are a guiding presence and provide support for doctoral candidates during their studies. Most attend Commencement for the hooding of their graduate student.

The History of the Regalia

The square caps worn by most graduates are called mortarboards and are adorned with tassels colored according to their school of study, which are typically standard across the United States. The mortarboard style comes from a centuries-old tradition started at Oxford. The traditional gown started several centuries ago as well, when students in medieval universities would organize themselves into guilds and wear long gowns, most likely for warmth. Some scholars added a hood to cover their shaved heads (mostly members of a church order), and the hood evolved into a cape to wear in foul weather. Though the styles changed slightly over the years, the traditions of graduation apparel are widely known and strictly followed.

Learn More About Academic Regalia

Heraldic Banners

Heraldic banners—also known as gonfalons—display words and symbols that represent different fields of study. Originally used in military and religious ceremonies, they have been a common part of educational celebrations since the Renaissance era. These banners line the stage at Commencement, identifying schools within IU Indianapolis.

Other Important Ceremonial Traditions