Skip to main content

Decoding Commencement

An excited IU graduate from the IU South Bend campus holds up her diploma at Commencement on May 7, 2019. All photos courtesy of Indiana University.

For what is believed to be the first time in IU history, university officials were compelled to cancel Commencement festivities for the class of 2020 to protect the health of students, faculty, staff, and other attendees amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Unprecedented times like these allow us to slow down and ponder the meaning behind these rites of passage. What do all the fixtures of Commencement mean—the jewelry, the banners, the colorful attire? With the help of IU Archives and the University Events team, we mapped out IU Commencement and its many symbols and traditions.

The Grand Marshal and the IU Mace

The Grand Marshal, clad in a black brocade gown with a gold sash and black velvet hat, begins the Commencement ceremony by carrying in the symbolic “mace” as “Pomp and Circumstance” is performed by the band.

Each IU campus has its own Grand Marshal, a faculty member who is selected by a committee of Commencement staff. However, since IUPUI grants degrees from both IU and Purdue, its ceremony has two grand marshals—one to represent each university. In most cases, Grand Marshals serve several years in a row.

Brian Horne, MM’87, DM’01, associate professor of voice at IU Bloomington, acts as Grand Marshal at the IU Bloomington Commencement.

The Grand Marshal’s mace has a polished ebony body with gold-spiral detailing leading up to a plated brass globe with four flattened sides embossed with IU’s seal, the Indiana state seal, IU initials, and a donor inscription, respectively. The large globe, decorated with sapphire, ruby, garnet, and topaz-colored gems, is topped with a golden eagle.

The mace is passed around the state during graduation season—making an appearance at all IU ceremonies. At the IUPUI Commencement, the Grand Marshal representing Purdue University carries the Purdue mace.

The mace has been a symbol of authority since medieval times, but the IU mace became part of Commencement in 1949 following its gifting from Phi Delta Theta.

The Marshals

In addition to the Grand Marshal, there are Head Marshals and School Marshals. The Head Marshals are a group of faculty members who direct graduates to and from their seats—ensuring that the ceremony goes smoothly. Their uniform is a black-and-white gown. School marshals also assist with graduate traffic and sit with their respective schools during the ceremony. They are often dressed in a black gown paired with a shoulder sash.

Head Marshals pose with the Grand Marshal at an IU Bloomington Commencement ceremony. Each year, faculty members volunteer to serve as Head Marshals.


IU Bloomington and IUPUI’s spring ceremonies include bagpipers. After all the graduates have been seated, the bagpipers emerge—leading the platform party down the main aisle.

The Fountain Trust Pipe Band was introduced to IU Bloomington’s Commencement by President Michael A. McRobbie in 2016. The same band began performing at the IUPUI Commencement in May 2017. A different bagpiping group, the Louisville Pipe Band, become part of IU Southeast’s Commencement that same year.

Every Commencement features renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Hail to Old IU,” and “Indiana, Our Indiana” played by a band comprised of IU music students. IUPUI Commencements also include a performance of Purdue’s alma mater song, “Purdue Hymn.”

The Fountain Trust Pipe Band is based in Covington, Ind., and was founded in 1999.

The IU Bloomington and IUPUI Commencement stages are lined with heraldic banners, an Australian tradition that displays symbols representing each field of study.

The President

The president’s Commencement gown is a custom-made garment. Everything from the fabric to the embellishments are handpicked by the current president.

President McRobbie’s gown features four chevrons on the sleeve, which represent his status as a PhD holder (three chevrons) and president (one chevron). McRobbie, as a PhD recipient of Australian National University, wears a special cap called a beefeater.

The president also dons the President’s Jewel of Office, a necklace inspired by IU’s university flower, the arbutus. There are 12 precious stones in the necklace—three representing the states (Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois) carved out of the Northwest Territory by the year 1820; three for the branches of Indiana state government; three for reading, writing, and arithmetic; and three for arts, sciences, and humanities.

Worn here by IU President Michael A. McRobbie, the President’s Jewel of Office was presented by Beta Theta Pi in 1946, and its collar was presented by Sigma Chi in 1958.

Board of Trustees

IU’s Board of Trustees is the university’s governing body. Established by the state in 1820, the Board is comprised of nine members, three of whom are elected by IU alumni. At Commencement, the Board of Trustees wear robes modeled after the president’s, adorned with a red velvet stole-shaped fabric piece and paired with a special, IU-branded hood.

Five of the nine current IU Trustees pose at a Commencement ceremony. From left to right: Donna Spears, BS’79, MPA’81; MaryEllen Bishop, BS’79, JD’82; Michael Mirro, MD’74, DSc’03; Melanie Walker; and James Morris, BA’65.

The Provost

The IU Provost is the chief academic officer of the IU Bloomington campus, with duties ranging from faculty recruitment and diversity initiatives to research support. Like the president, the provost wears a symbolic necklace called the Provost’s Chain of Office. The decadent accessory features small nameplates along each side that acknowledge all of IU Bloomington’s degree-granting schools, the IU Eskenazi Museum of Art, and the IU Libraries. The face of the large medallion is embossed with the IU seal and surrounded by a vine of arbutus flowers, while the reverse side depicts the Rose Well House, the Frances Morgan Swain Student Building, and the Sample Gates.

Worn here by IU Bloomington Provost Lauren Robel, the Provost’s Chain of Office was presented by Beta Theta Pi in 2008.

Deans of Schools, Honorary Degree Recipients, University Officers, and Distinguished Alumni

IU faculty, deans of schools, and university officers wear regalia representing the university of their highest degree. Honorary degree recipients are given a special velvet and satin hood to don, while Distinguished Alumni Award recipients wear a cap and gown and are presented with an engraved crystal trophy to recognize their achievements post-graduation.

Actress Viola Davis, right, received an honorary doctoral degree in fine arts in January 2020.

At IU Bloomington’s 2017 winter Commencement, Moya Andrews, right, President’s Medal for Excellence recipient and IU professor emeritus of speech and hearing sciences, wears graduation attire from Columbia University, where she received her doctorate.

At doctoral ceremonies, IU faculty who head doctoral committees have the unique honor of placing doctoral hoods on their mentees.

Unofficial Traditions

Though not officially endorsed by the university, students often decorate and personalize their mortarboards across all IU campuses.

Two nursing graduates from IU Kokomo show off their decorated mortarboards, dedicated to their mothers.

IU East, IU Kokomo, and IU Southeast, have a tradition called the “Graduate Gauntlet,” where faculty and staff line up to form an aisle and applaud students as they walk to their seats.

IU East faculty congratulate their students during the “Graduate Gauntlet.”

Written By

Kami Gallardo

Kami Gallardo, BA'20, is an editorial intern at the IU Alumni Association. After graduating with a degree in English, she is pursuing law school at IU's Maurer School of Law in the fall of 2020.

Related stories

Indiana University Alumni, Hall of Fame, Unique Inductions

Written in the Stars: IU Alumni Honored with Inductions into Unique Halls of Fame

Meet six alumni who have been inducted into unique halls of fame across the globe, such as the Printing Industry Hall of Fame.

Two-Time IU Alumna Jennifer Root Named to Growing Michigan Together Council

In 2023, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appointed Jennifer Root to the Growing Michigan Together Council. The council will advise Whitmer on specific policies to grow Michigan’s population and enhance K-12 and higher education.

graphic of three students sitting at desks

Finals Week Chronicles

From a massive snowball fight to a mid-exam evacuation to a “victory cigar,” these stories truly capture the uniqueness of finals week at IU.

Elder Watson Diggs: ‘The Dreamer’

In 1916, Elder Watson Diggs, founder of Kappa Alpha Psi, became the first Black graduate of the IU School of Education.