August 2008 Doctoral Commencement Address

Miles Bryant

Dr. Miles Bryant, professor of educational administration, delivered this address for the doctoral commencement ceremony.

A Hooding Speech:

The Diploma: Ten Words of Consequence

Good Afternoon. Doctoral candidates soon to be doctors, faculty mentors, fellow faculty members, friends, family, Chancellor Perlman, Dean Weissinger, members of the administration and platform party. As an active doctoral adviser, I have attended many of these ceremonies and have always taken much delight in the joyful spirit of accomplishment and closure that we bring with us today.

I am honored to speak to you.

I like this hooding ceremony that we do at UNL. Interestingly, many universities now honor their doctoral graduates with hooding ceremonies (MIT, Duke, Rice, UCLA, UNC, Chicago Law School). Our very own hooding ceremony is in good company.

When the call came from the Graduate College asking me if I would speak to you today, I made a silent appeal to Dean Weissinger and Eva Bachman that they approach every every deity known to man for a cooler day than we normally get in mid August in Lincoln.

It's hot in the afternoon sun waiting for the processional to wind its way into this building. These black robes were not designed for Nebraska summers — as Vice Chancellor Couture has instructed us. Kudos to both for successfully ordering up the cooler skies.

At last spring's hooding ceremony, Professor Azzaddine Azzam gave what I have come to think of as a hooding speech. He set an example by focusing on just one of the many, many conventions of doctoral education — the acknowledgement page of the dissertation. You graduates all just finished writing one of these so you know of the convention of which he spoke.

He drew on the implicit lessons of this page in the doctoral dissertation noting that almost always the doctoral student makes mention of the doctoral mentor. Then he spoke of the importance of continuing the mentoring process that doctoral education models. I think Professor Azzam could be credited with laying the groundwork for a new genre of graduation talks, the hooding speech.

He directed his remarks at the doctoral graduates, which I will do for the most part.

He spoke of a practice shared by doctoral students, which I will do.

He expressed a hope for your future behavior as new doctors, which I will do.

Think of the many practices that are common in doctoral education. I will spare you the litany of these. But, if you seek topics for a celebratory evening meal tonight after these festivities (which I hope you will have), you might regale your dinner partners with your descriptions of some of these common and sometimes strange practices known to the academy. There are many.

You have mastered all that were required of you, even that one which obligates you to pay for your 999 Dissertation hours and any of those nagging holds in your WAM account.

From these many conventions, I want to focus on just one.

I want to say a few words about the piece of paper that you will get shortly. This piece of paper itself is a pretty important convention as I am sure you agree.

It's real. It's signed. You have earned it. It is a diploma.

By the way, after this ceremony, don't be shy about showing this piece of paper off to others.

The language of the diploma is not just simple language. It does not say, for example, that UNL grants so and so a Doctor of Philosophy. Or UNL is proud to convey on so and so the Doctor of Education. No, the language of the diploma seeks to inflate the importance of this very important piece of paper in ways that a mere declarative statement could not.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us this definition of a diploma: "a document granted by a competent authority conferring some honor, privilege, or license; esp. that given by a university or college, testifying to a degree taken by a person, and conferring upon him the rights and privileges of such degree, as to teach, practice medicine, or the like."

I want to talk in particular about ten words generally common to diplomas and to yours specifically that add special weight to this piece of paper.

Each one of you, whether your doctoral degree is a PhD or an EdD or a Doctor of Music or a Doctor of Audiology, will receive a diploma that will state that you are now entitled to enjoy all the rights, honors and privileges pertaining thereto.

At different institutions, there are slight variations in this language. Sometimes the language reads thereto pertaining. Sometimes the language reads pertaining thereonto. Sometimes it reads with all rights, privileges and honors thereunto appertaining.

My own reads: with all the rights, privileges and honors thereunto pertaining.

Go figure.

It is legal language of the sort that, I suppose, might appear in a deed or a decree or an estate settlement. It is language that comes to us courtesy of British constitutional law and decrees and patents and grants made by the British crown.

You get the point, however. The flowery language is a convention. The elaborate lettering and script is another convention that comes to us from the same source.

Enjoy all the rights, privileges and honors thereunto pertaining — These are words of consequence.

"Enjoy!" I suspect I need not say much about this word. Each of you and each of us in this ceremony can get our minds easily around what that word signifies.

Think about it. Isn't it wonderful? Shortly, a host of competent authorities (your advisor, the faculty, the Dean of the Graduate College, your Chancellor, the university Regents) will, through a complex reporting process, authorize the granting of this distinguished and distinguishing document and bestow on each of you rights, privileges, and honors.

That multiple layers of an academic bureaucracy can bring us so happily to this point!

(Mirabile dictu!! It's a miracle!!)

But "rights, honors, and privileges"? What is meant?

"Rights." Does the piece of paper confer upon you something to which you had hitherto been un-entitled? Sure, you now qualify for a professor job at a research university or college. You're eligible. That is different than having a right. You have potential.

And, "honors"? What honor? To be sure, if you want to elevate the level of service you get at the grocery store or bank or medical office, make sure these service providers know you are the holder of this piece of paper. I am told that we doctors are more honored in the world at large. I can tell you it seems to make absolutely no difference to the nurse employed by doctor.

Does the diploma give you some special status, some privilege, that the hoi polloi do not enjoy? A Russian scholar and critic of doctoral education (Artsimovich, 1969) once wrote: "If I understand correctly, in the Western countries just like in the Soviet Union, a scientist is called somebody who is permitted to pursue his hobby at the expense of society." That sounds like privilege to me. Can you not each claim to be a scientist of sorts? And is it not also the case that while you paid a lot for your education, so did society.

But if there is privilege, there is are still parking tickets, no guaranteed membership in a faculty club, no immunity from library fines. Nor is today's society quite so willing to pay for all your expenses as a scientist.

So what are these newly conferred rights and honors and privileges.

Certainly for those of you who intend to use your new doctoral degree as a pre-requisite for university or collegiate employment, these words resonate. You are now eligible to join an academic peer group. You have successfully completed an academic initiation rite. You have the PIN number to the academy. You know the secret handshake.

Those of you who will take your degree to other lines of work than university and college teaching also will find the promise of these ten words meaningful.

A respected scholarly community has certified that you have met many demanding challenges and have acquired a deep knowledge of an important area of human inquiry. A respected university has given you the public endorsement of your accomplishment.

But here is what I want to emphasize.

You have the most stature, the most privilege, the most honor, in the intellectual community that populates your discipline.

You have been accepted as a member of this discipline.

It is in this intellectual community where these words have the strongest meaning.

Some departments at UNL are part of a funded project called the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate. This is a national effort to engage faculty from different disciplines in a discussion of reforms to doctoral education.

One of the key themes emerging from these discussions is a conviction that new and old doctors (you and the faculty advisor seated next to you for example) have a responsibility to be stewards of your respective disciplines.

Stewards of the discipline. Among you today are entomologists who studied insect genomics, psychologists who study the risks of childhood maltreatment and physiological responses to stress, biologists who study deer and elk in Nebraska, English majors who study activist literacy. And some ninety-five others, each having earned his or her degree in a discipline.

You have been granted the right to membership in this discipline be it chemistry, nutrition, educational administration, botany, mechanical engineering, computer science, mathematics. You have been honored by having your work recognized by those now your peers. You have been given the privilege of having a place at the table in determining how your discipline proceeds into the future.

Thus, these ten words on your diploma do have weight.

As I said earlier, one of the possible elements of the hooding speech is to suggest to you something gained in your doctoral education that should stretch into your futures.

I want to suggest that unstated on your diploma but implicit in the ten words we have been examining is a missing word: responsibility.

Does not responsibility accompany these rights, honors and privileges?

I think so.

At any level, education cannot long be static and be relevant. It must be responsive to the learner and the learner's times and time. It must be responsive to the new knowledge generated by the members of the discipline.

Clark Kerr, a renowned scholar of doctoral education, spent a good part of his life trying to persuade scholars that doctoral education had become static and barely relevant to the world beyond the academy.

The Carnegie Initiative joins others who have argued that doctoral education needs to make significant changes.

At the beginning of the 20th century, William James wrote a deeply critical piece on doctoral education called the PhD Octopus. He noted the contradictions between what is needed by doctoral learners and what is provided to doctoral learners.

Approximately 50% of those who start doctoral programs complete doctoral programs (Damrosch, 2006).

There is much to do to help your disciplines adjust to changing times.

You will not all join a faculty at an institution like UNL. You will go in many directions.

No matter whether your next steps take you to the academy or to a professional career or to your own brand of entrepreneurship please accept as an unstated part of your diploma's language that you will be a steward of your discipline.

I want to end with a poem. Most of you have been very, very absorbed in your efforts to earn this diploma and its ten words of consequence. Now, other pursuits will insert themselves into your lives.

Written of an absorbing, often grueling, passionate period of work, this is my poem about the position that each of you new doctors will now find yourselves. I wrote it about promotion but it applies equally well to achieving a doctoral degree. It reads like this:

On Promotion (Or on Being Hooded)
Then the weekend days ran like small children
Freed from the hallways of the school
Never quite catching up to something they wanted to be near
Like my days that never caught up with trees and flowers
Or the smiling couples
Laughing on shaded sidewalks and quiet streets.
Now, will there be a more balanced time?
Will past neglect be forgiven and forgotten?
Can habit be wrought into new patterns?
Will I hear the dog, now that I am unleashed
For weekend walks in the woods,
Bark and whistle with joy?

I wish you much laughter, walks in the woods, and new patterns now that you are about to be unleashed.

Thank you for your kind attention.


Artsimovich, L. (1969). A lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In E. Jantsch. Inter- and Transdisciplinary University: A Systems Approach to Education and Innovation. Higher Education, Vol. 1, No. 1, (Feb., 1972), pp. 7-37

Bryant, M. (2006). On Promotion. In Horses smiling and other moments recollected in Nebraska. Lincoln, NE: B Street Press.

Damrosch, David. (2006). Vectors of Change. In C.M. Golde, G.F. Walker, and Associates (Eds). Envisioning the future of doctoral education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.