Academia comes with obligation

Julkaistu 24.08.2018. - Promootioblogi 2018

The sword symbolises the truth. It is a weapon of the spirit for its carrier. Sword in hand, the researcher enters into battle for what they conclude to be true, right and good.

Conferment ceremonies have been organised uninterrupted already since the 13th century, and the fifth conferment soon to take place at the University of Vaasa will be adding another link to this chain. In the past, the right to use the title of Doctor was received only by participating in a conferment or paying a stamp tax. This principle has been foregone, and nowadays the title of Doctor can be used immediately after receiving the diploma.

When I defended my doctoral thesis a quarter of a century ago, I received the right to use the title of Doctor right away but was not entitled to wear the doctoral hat. The right to use the academic insignia associated with the doctoral degree was established only after I participated in a conferment ceremony. Though I've heard that these days new doctors order their hats before conferment, and also at the University of Vaasa we tend to give the lyre, which will be attached to the hat, as a present for the doctoral candidate. So why do we still organise a three-day celebration to confer doctors?

In the conferment act, the symbols presented to the doctors – the hat, the sword, and the diploma – encapsulate the message of the conferment. The diploma validates the doctor's title and position as a member of the academic scientific community. Therefore, the conferment is not just a personal celebration for conferred doctors; the entire scientific community celebrates its new members. The celebration is very communal in nature. The doctoral hat signals the virtues of scholarship and its carrier's freedom to practice science.

The round shape of the hat is said to signify that its wearer must present explicit answers to asked questions naturally and unambiguously. The colour of the top hat represents the discipline: the hat of a legal scholar is dark red, purple for a theologian, dark green for a medical scholar, dark blue for a doctor of arts, grey for a doctor of military science, and black for most of the remaining disciplines – which is the majority of doctors at our university. Also the lyre attached to the hat often represents the discipline. Here at the University of Vaasa the doctors conferred usually attach the university's own elegant lyra to their hats regardless of the discipline.  I think that this wonderfully manifests the doctors' desire to identify themselves specifically as the members of the scientific community of the University of Vaasa.

The sword, in turn, symbolises the truth. It is a weapon of the spirit for its carrier. Sword in hand, the researcher enters into battle for what they conclude to be true, right and good. In Finland the doctoral sword was first initiated in the 200th anniversary of the University of Helsinki (Alexander University) in 1840. To this day, it is the civilian sword designed by Akseli Gallen-Kallela that most often wins the pick, but other swords are not an uncommon sight either. The symbol of the university is attached to the sword handed in the conferment. In our university, the symbol – just like the lyre attached to the hat – depicts the military fascine, familiar from the coat of arms of the House of Vasa. Admittedly, our doctoral symbols have roots in the battlefields. We fight with our sword for what we conclude to be right and defend ourselves from attacks protected by our lyre.

I believe that it is now particularly relevant to reflect on the message of the insignias that signify the doctorate diploma and degree. How eager are we to fight for the truth and right that we conclude in the “post-truth era” when “alternative facts” with the help of media exposure reach us at an intensity that the impact of scientific publication can only envy? At the same time, how much effort do we put into fighting for relevant research in an environment of “publish or destroy”? How easy it is to replace the pursuit of true scientific contribution with a chase for the number of publications in an era of results-based management founded on measuring. How free are we to practice science under the pressure of profiling goals, network memberships and partnerships, projects, and external funding? And how do we define the boundaries and memberships of a scientific community when the lines between disciplines are blurring and doctors are increasingly often employed outside the university community?

It's easy to ask tough questions, and there are certainly no ready answers. Nevertheless, the symbolism that the doctorate diploma, hat and sword hold is still topical. The conferment ceremony challenges us to think about the starting points of academia, research and our own activities. We must have a clear view on what we are working for and what kind of values guide our work. Academia comes with obligation.

The writer is the Master of Ceremonies at the Conferment Ceremony.

Pirjo Laaksonen
Dean, Professori
School of marketing and communication
University of Vaasa

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