Graduation gowns are not for all and sundry

Graduands at the KEMU University main campus in Meru. [File, Standard]

Oloo Aringo was a master of weird platitudes. In 1988, then an assistant minister for Education, he joined a graduation ceremony at University of Nairobi presided over by President Daniel arap Moi and made two blunders. One, he referred to the president as the "prince of peace" and two, he joined academic procession and wore a doctoral regalia without having earned a doctoral degree or graduated with a masters. 

Both acts elicited public outcry and scorn. University of Nairobi Council was recalled to address the issue while UASU held a press conference and asked the minister to apologise. Those were the days university and academic protocols and procedures were strictly followed. Moi, who was the chancellor of all public universities, had to be baptised into academia through an award of an honorary doctoral degree so that he could officially become the chancellor and preside over graduation ceremonies.

While graduation and getting a degree have become subjects of public discussion and controversy among the political class, it is shocking that academic institutions have become unusually quiet on the matter. It is high time these institutions called pressers to educate the public and warn politicians of the consequences of faking degrees and misuse of academic regalia.

The gown has been won by wrong people on wrong occasions and at wrong times. We have seen these gowns worn by parents of graduands, preachers, rogue politicians, actors and pseudo lawyers, mostly in wrong places such as weddings, burials, churches, ceremonies and even in political rallies. This piece of cloth is divine and is supposed to be worn only once or twice in one’s lifetime.

When I was at University of Oxford in 2001, I witnessed how strictly the university treated and used a graduation gown. During examination time, students wear the gown minus the cap to illustrate the significance of such activity in academic life. Dons wear these gowns when having academic dinners in all Oxford university colleges. Thus, the tradition of wearing an academic dress to graduation started as a spiritual necessity and official wear of academics to the rite of passage. The custom started during the 12th century Italy in monasteries and when early universities began to appear in Europe.

Academics were regarded as poor and they would be required to wear a hood while in cities. The public would then give them donations placed in those hoods. Wearing a gown is an internationally acknowledged perennial status symbol. Access to education is inherently a privilege because it is costly, involves time, money and social capital to complete.

When we graduate and wear academic regalia, we slap the symbols of our universities on our chests. It is unfortunate when crooks take short-cuts and obtain, for example, a four year degree certificate without attending a class. It demoralises those who work hard to achieve these goals. Universities should ensure hard work is rewarded and make it impossible to take short-cuts in academic life.

Dr Chacha teaches at Laikipia University