Conferment festivities embody the University’s inclusivity

While Arto Aniluoto has in-depth knowledge of the conferment tradition, he will now take part in the ceremony for the first time as a doctoral graduand of the Faculty of Social Sciences.

You have attended more than 10 conferment ceremonies at the University of Helsinki in a range of roles. You could perhaps be called a conferment nut. What is it that fascinates you about the tradition?

It is fair to call me that. Since 2000, I have participated in at least one conferment ceremony for every faculty that organises them at the University of Helsinki, as well as taking part in one at the University of Art and Design Helsinki before it became part of Aalto University. I had to actually do the math, but I think I’ve been to 14 conferment ceremonies by now.

The fascinating thing about conferment ceremonies is how people always find new ways of fulfilling centuries-old traditions and their nature as a rite of passage: master’s and doctoral graduates who participate in a conferment ceremony will have an unforgettable graduation experience that is both personal and very communal, shared with contemporaries and peers. Conferment ceremonies are a wonderful way of celebrating your academic achievements and investing several days in reflecting on the significance of education, edification, scholarship and research to the graduates personally and to society as a whole.

We live in a time of a constantly accelerating stream of various fragmentary feeds, but the conferment tradition represents something unhurried, timeless and altogether different. Reasonably speaking, it’s crazy to hold festivities for days on end according to a centuries-old format. But that’s precisely why it’s worth doing. In connection with the conferment ceremony of the Faculty of Social Sciences in 2011, I used a film-related expression: “The conferment ceremony is like the Matrix. You can’t explain it; you just have to experience it yourself.” I’ve often been quoted on that since then. 

Let’s take a closer look at the conferment ceremony from the perspective of academic traditions. It is part of a long historical continuum. What is meaningful and worth fostering in the conferment tradition?

First-timers in conferment ceremonies often wonder about their duration and formality, pondering whether they could be toned down just a little. The idea is precisely that during a production that is actually spread over several days, things that simply would not occur in a one-day celebration will start to happen. During the festivities, the ambience among participants evolves continuously from one day to the next. Such a format allows thoughts and emotions that are difficult to experience anywhere else by modern people living their hectic lives.

The festivities start with a meeting for introductions on 13 May, Flora Day. The second day, that of garland-weaving and sword-whetting, is dedicated to preparations and rehearsals. In the conferment ceremony of the third day, master’s and doctoral graduands receive garlands and master’s rings as well as doctoral swords and hats, the symbolic insignia of their academic titles. These are subsequently celebrated at the conferment dinner. An excursion on the fourth day – a boat trip in the case of the Faculty of Social Sciences – offers the participants the opportunity to catch their breath in a more relaxed setting. After this, the festivities culminate in a carnival-like conferment ball with a nocturnal procession to follow, lasting at least until the official time of sunrise.

The conferral of master’s graduands in particular is part of an old European heritage that, with the exception of the Nordic countries, has all but disappeared from the continent. In fact, the addition of the tradition of conferring master’s degrees to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage has been sought, and for good reason, since the festivities are exceptional even in international comparison.

However, conferment ceremonies are more than the historic rustle of laurel leaves. Instead, each ceremony is a reflection of its own era. Consequently, the celebrations also serve as the University’s showcase for society. For instance, a decision was made this year to waive the traditional gunshots following the conferment of doctoral and master’s graduands at the Faculty of Social Sciences conferment ceremony due to the war in Ukraine. What does the conferment ceremony say more generally about the University as well as its values, people and inclusivity?

This is precisely the fascinating angle of ‘always the same but different’ associated with conferment ceremonies. Our conferment tradition dates back centuries to the first such ceremony, held in 1643, at which point our alma mater was, of course, the Royal Academy of Turku. The tradition continued, grew and evolved through the 19th century. The institution relocated to Helsinki and was renamed the Imperial Alexander University, which, after Finland gained its independence, changed its name to the University of Helsinki. As the University has grown, conferment ceremonies have gradually expanded to become the grandest of all academic celebrations.

Sampo Ahto, who taught me military history, has summed up the notion that the heart of tradition never lies in the past but always in the future. In other words, the value of tradition is not repeating rigidly something previously done. Rather, its value is in us understanding what was done in the past as well as being able to assess and apply it in our time. We have to be familiar with our past and history to be able to understand who we are in our time and, on that basis, in which direction we wish to build our future. No tradition, institution or even university will survive without renewing itself and reflecting the era and society it occupies.

This way, each conferment ceremony is simultaneously part of an age-old tradition as well as its own time and phenomena, methods of implementation and people involved in them. In the conferment ceremonies of social scientists, who are always actively involved in public discourse, the spirit, generation and ideals of the time in question are even more prominently displayed compared to other conferment ceremonies. At the moment, the themes of equality, engagement and sustainable development, not forgetting war in Europe, are prominent in the worldview of those moving on from the University to the labour market and wider society.

Many people are interested in taking part in a conferment ceremony, but the associated etiquette gives them cold feet. What should you know about the various events included in the festivities, and how should you prepare for them? What does a conferment survival kit contain?

Understandably, those who take part in a conferment ceremony for the first time are the ones most afraid of breaking the etiquette. Indeed, the number of details pertaining to, for example, the dress code can be bewildering, but it engenders a formal uniformity and inclusivity pleasing to the senses, an increasingly unfamiliar experience to modern people struggling with their individuality. In conferment ceremonies, as in life, the concept of ‘we’ should be more meaningful than that of ‘me’. The most important thing is to have the courage to let the festivities sweep you away, even if you don’t quite know what you are taking part in, and to meet your peers as well as other generations in a shared experience. Above all, the best elements of preparation and a survival kit include enough time and an open-minded attitude to accept the multitude of experiences, emotions, thoughts and joys brought about by the celebrations.

As a veteran of conferment festivities, you have a great deal of conferment-related stories stored in your memory. Tell us one that you think best summarises what the ceremonies are really about.

I indeed have an endless and varied list of these often anecdotal occurrences, so it would be impossible to choose just one. On a more general level, I would highlight the human encounters, which at conferment ceremonies are diverse and often even peculiar in an unusual way.

I will never forget Academician Eino Jutikkala, the oldest participant of my own master’s conferment ceremony in 2006 and, as far as is known, the first recipient of a jubilee honorary doctorate. Even at the age of 99, he participated in the ceremony on his feet as a jubilee doctor, 50 years after being conferred with the title of honorary doctor. I had the opportunity to visit the home of this educated giant who had established an entirely new field of science in Finland, and who treated a master’s degree holder 70 years his junior in a friendly and equal manner. Jutikkala had received his honorary doctorate together with, among others, philosopher Eino Kaila and President Risto Ryti, whom I knew primarily from history books in school.

At the conferment ceremony, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England then bestowed with an honorary doctorate, stated that he only had one more goal in life: to live to 108 years of age so that, like Jutikkala, he could return in 2056. In his conferment address, he revealed previously unknown and genuinely impressive secret historical material from the Bank of England on Risto Ryti, another recipient of an honorary doctorate in the conferment ceremony of 1956. This opened up a new avenue and provided a new source for academic research on Ryti. Since King left behind the box for his doctoral hat, it found its way to me in my role as the chair of the conferment committee when the conferment office was closed down after the festivities. The hat box of the Governor of the Bank of England, which remains in my closet 16 years later, reminds me daily of some of the most memorable days of my life, in May 2006.