The confernment ceremony
The masters’ conferment ceremony lasts for three days and is held as May turns to June. It has remained part of the academic tradition for centuries, with alterations and adjustments made according to each period.
The conferment celebrations

Three days of celebrating

The masters’ conferment celebration begins on 13 May with the selection of the official wreath-weaver, which takes place at the master promovendi’s meeting, held in Latin. The official wreath-weaver must be an offspring of one of the university’s professors or some other notable person, and with their choice the promovendi wish to honour said person. The decision is followed by the official wreath-weaver’s proposal, and once they have agreed to this task, the attendants proceed to the Kumtähden kenttä park to the student spring celebration to honour the premier of the Finnish national anthem Maamme. A festive lunch with speeches will conclude these celebrations.

The actual conferment ceremony will last for three days and is held as May turns to June. The dress code is very strict, and a dress coat or an evening dress is required for most of the events. On the first day, which is a Thursday, preparations are made for the conferment by tying the master promovendi’s laurel wreaths and symbolically sharpening the doctors’ swords. The evening ends in a wreath-weaving and sword-whetting banquet, which includes several speeches given mainly in Finnish and Swedish. The multilingual speeches may be about the speaker’s scientific field, or some social topic, and these are an integral part of the conferment tradition.

The main event is held in the university's Great Hall

On the second day, i.e. Friday, the main event, the conferment ceremony, is held in the university’s Great Hall. The ceremony follows a precise choreography and resembles a rehearsed performance in which the promovendi are conferred the rank of master or doctor and granted the symbols of their respective degrees. First the promovendi, then their companions and the university’s representatives enter the hall in carefully arranged processions. After the Conferrer’s speech, the prima or primus master and doctor are presented with a question related to their field of study, and they must answer these. Once the answers have been approved, the conferment may begin. One by one, the promovendi step up, in accordance with a precise choreography, onto the parnasso to receive their academic insignia: the Conferrer will place the laurel wreaths on the heads of the masters and put the golden rings in their fingers, and hand the doctors their swords and hats. Finnish classical music is usually played during the ceremony, and music in general plays an important role in the proceedings. Traditionally, the programme will include at least the Academic March (Promootiomarssi) and Andante Festivo by Jean Sibelius. Often, new pieces are also commissioned for conferment ceremonies (typically cantatas), receiving their premieres at these ceremonies.

The conferment ceremony ends with the ultima or ultimus master’s speech to Finland, after which the participants move in a procession from the Great Hall to Helsinki Cathedral for a conferment service. Alternatively, they may attend a non-denominational event at another location. Processions are a traditional part of academic celebrations, and usually a number of people will gather in Senate Square to watch them. The conferment dinner is held on Friday evening, and its programme includes special conferment poems (often one in Finnish and one in Swedish) or some other form of artistic entertainment commissioned for this event. There will also be more speeches, the most significant one being the speech for the university to which the Rector will reply.

A trip, a lunch and a ball

The third day, Saturday, begins with a short trip, typically a sailing trip to a nearby island or around the sea area off Helsinki. This trip is the most informal event during the conferment, and includes a lunch. The day and the entire conferment ends with a ball at the Old Student House, where the participants dance traditional academic festive dances, including a carefully rehearsed masters’ contredanse. The ball also entails several other traditional elements, such as honouring the people key to the conferment by carrying them on a litter. After the dance, the attendants arrange themselves into a nocturnal procession that travels along the streets and across the parks of the city. Along the way, they will stop by statues to give speeches and sing traditional student songs. At sunrise, the procession will make its final stop at the Senaatintori square or the Tähtitorninmäki hill, depending on the faculty, for a speech to the rising sun.

The background and history of the conferment tradition

The masters’ conferment ceremony has remained part of the academic tradition for centuries, with alterations and adjustments made according to each period. The ceremony originates from the Middle Ages: conferment ceremonies were being held in Bologna and Paris as early as in the 13th century. Finland’s conferment tradition is old and dates back to 1643, to the first conferment ceremony of the Faculty of Philosophy, only three years after the Royal Academy of Turku was founded. Since then, the tradition has continued almost unbroken and also spread to other faculties and universities in Finland. The conferment ceremony of the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Philosophy is still the biggest of Finland’s conferment ceremonies, and nowadays it is held approximately every three years.

The conferment ceremonies of the Faculty of Philosophy in the Royal Academy of Turku remained nearly unchanged as one-day events intended for masters only until the early 19th century. The ceremony began with a gathering at the Conferrer’s home, from where the promovendi travelled in a procession to the Old Academy Building, where the Conferrer would grant them their academic titles. Many of the modern elements of the ceremony, such as the processions and the question posed to the primus master were part of the older conferment ceremonies, as well. The symbols related to the conferment have also remained the same for several centuries: as early as the 18th century, the laurel wreath represented the masters’ achievements. Similarly, the conferment still begins with the Conferrer’s speech and ends with a speech by the ultimus.

The conferment tradition began to change in the 19th century. Examples of new elements included the conferment of jubilee masters and doctors during the same ceremony. In the 1850s, the Finnish national anthem became a fixed part of the conferment ceremony programme. More events were added to the celebration, and the ball, for example, became part of the tradition. In the 1880s, the (Old) Student House became the traditional venue for the ball. All the while, the conferment ceremonies grew in size and developed into noteworthy society events: the history of the tradition is well-known, because the press was eager to write about the related events.

Finnish features of the ceremony

Gradually, the tradition of including masters in the conferment ceremony disappeared from the rest of the world, and the ceremony began adopting features that are only found in Finland. One of these uniquely Finnish features is the appointment of the official wreath-weaver (originally always female). On the other hand, at the end of the 19th century, the tensions with Russia were threatening the continuation of the conferment ceremonies, as they exhibited a spirit of Finnish nationalism. In fact, organising a conferment ceremony required a permit from the Emperor.

Since Finland gained its independence, the tradition has continued without interruptions. The first conferment of the independence era was held in 1919. After World War II, there was a 14 year gap in the tradition; the previous break of such a length had been in the 18th century due to the Great Northern War. Organising a conferment after such a long break was challenging, as the organisers struggled to remember many of the tradition’s details. Therefore, a new tradition of compiling a commemorative book for each ceremony was created. In the 1970s, the conferment ceremonies were considered old-fashioned and elitist, which is why they were kept smaller in scale. However, in the 1980s, the social atmosphere changed and conferment ceremonies regained their popularity.

Over the centuries, academics have felt that celebrating the achievements of graduated masters and doctors in a grand fashion is part of the academic life. Therefore, the conferment tradition has been considered a valuable element of Finnish academia and has maintained its vitality, even through the more challenging times. All the while, the tradition has also evolved, as every conferment and conferment committee has tried to add something new to the centuries-long tradition.

The future of the tradition

The procession led by the Master of Ceremonies and the Conferrer from the ceremony to Helsinki Cathedral during the conferment ceremony of the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Philosophy in 2003. Conferrer Sören Illman’s doctoral robes (second from the left) from Princeton University added flavour to the ceremony.

Currently, the conferment tradition remains strong. In recent years, there has been an abundance of volunteer organisers, and during the past decade the ceremonies have also broken records in their attendant numbers. Based on the current situation, the future of the conferment tradition looks bright and safe, although it is possible that at some point, similarly to the 1970s, society will begin to think that the ceremonies are old-fashioned, elitist and unsuitable for modern day society.

Recent developments in the academic world can be considered the main threat to the conferment tradition, with the reductions to universities’ budgets and forceful attempts to restrict study times. Universities have viewed the conferment ceremonies as an important part of academic life and supported them both financially and by providing their facilities to be used as the venues. However, as the universities’ budgets tighten, the funding for the ceremonies may also face problems and the possible increase in the attendance fees resulting from this could lower the number of participants.

The shortening of study times and attempts at getting students to graduate faster, on the other hand, pose challenges in terms of active student participation and various student traditions that have a strong connection to the conferment ceremony. Many of the phenomena present at these ceremonies originate from a strong student tradition, with which the organisers of the ceremonies become familiar during their studies, for example at the annual balls held by student nations and other student associations. If the students’ ability to participate in the activities of these associations deteriorates, the future conferment ceremony organisers will not have the necessary overall knowledge regarding academic traditions.

However, the conferment tradition has managed to stay alive in Finland for nearly 375 years, through war, famine and political turmoil. Therefore, the tradition can be considered able to retain its vitality and continue on even in challenging conditions. Another factor guaranteeing the continuation and vitality of the tradition is the fact that conferment ceremonies adapt to their time. Newer examples of this include the elements added in the 21st century: male official wreath-weavers and the non-denominational gatherings as an alternative to the conferment service.