Graduation Ceremonies: A Former Dean Remembers

For me the best part of being a Dean was dealing with individual students and their problems. It was not always easy. One student, a clergyman, whom I had refused to grant a special examination, told me I was crucifying him, which I thought was rather big-noting himself. Another, after graduating, developed pangs of conscience and came and confessed to cheating in his last subject. We managed to solve that one without stripping him of his degree, thank goodness.

Some students experience extraordinary hardships. They crash their cars, fall in and out of love, clash with their parents, get sick, leave home, go broke, take on a multiplicity of part-time jobs, drop out, come back–and finally manage to graduate.

Which brings me to graduation ceremonies and a whole host of memories. As Dean of the Faculty of Arts I presented some 18,000 graduands to the Chancellor. Some made it by the skin of their teeth:  their assignments had been late; their record did not fit the rules, and the rules had to be bent – usually possible if there was some compensatory factor; another institution with which they had cross-enrolled was obstinately sitting on their results and so on.

As today’s graduates come from a wide range of different cultures, a Dean is confronted with some quite challenging names. If a sotto voce conversation was necessary to ascertain the right pronunciation, I considered it worth the few seconds’ delay. It seemed a pity to spoil someone’s evening by mispronouncing a name. The practice, however, had one amusing spinoff: some graduands with the plainest and simplest of names felt it necessary to whisper painstakingly in my ear, for example “John Smith.” Three Arts graduands over the years were my own daughters. At least I had no difficulty with their names.

There were the moving occasions when a student graduated with a profound physical disability, or a relative came forward to accept an award on behalf of someone who had recently died. Then there were the funny ones, as when a graduand paused midway across the stage, turned and photographed the audience–a fascinating reversal of roles.

Who could forget some of the recipients of honorary degrees, many of whom gave the address to graduates:  Tom Keneally, incredibly bright, jovial and rotund, accompanied by his mother, wife and daughter; Joan Sutherland and Graeme Murphy, eminent achievers who had never studied at a university, and whose simplicity and modesty were irresistible (Graeme was concerned at the colour clash  between his purple clothes and the scarlet doctoral robes); Gwen Harwood, whose address was cast in deftly crafted, whimsical verse. When the University of Tasmania gave Gwen an honorary DLitt, she was delighted: “I feel like an elderly cat who has always lived in the yard being given my very own basket by the fire.”

I like John Kenneth Galbraith’s observations on honorary degrees: “A grown man stands and tries to look modest in the presence of immodest and highly inaccurate praise.  Then he sits down and everyone forgets it all”  (Ambassador’s Journal, chapter XXVI). He adds, ”I think I will decline future offers. At least I should, ” and, in a footnote, “I didn’t.”

Robert Boughen, the University organist, used to give the audience a warm-up with a brisk pre-ceremony rehearsal of Gaudeamus. When it was all over, he despatched them with smiling faces and slightly raised eyebrows: they had sung it to the end, supported by his rumbustious chords, an invigorating blend of maestoso and iocoso.

Behind the scenes, marvellous administrators saw to a myriad of detail: graduands properly briefed and sitting in the right order, Arts students grouped according to their majors (a herculean task), VIPs appropriately welcomed and seated and even a succession of glasses of water for presenting Deans.

To all of those mentioned above, my warmest thanks for the memories.  Graduation ceremonies are undoubtedly here to stay, and that is a thoroughly good thing.

Don Barrett, 1950 BA (Hons) in Classics & Modern Languages, and 1953 MA (Latin)

Note: By 1960, Don joined the teaching staff at UQ, rising through the ranks to become the Dean of the Faculty of Arts (1983-94, making him the longest-serving Dean in the history of UQ). Don officially retired in 1994—after 42 years in the teaching profession, 34 of which were with UQ. However, 65 years after he began his teaching career, Don continues to teach and study at UQ (since 1997, as an Honorary Associate Professor and Research Consultant in Classics & Ancient History). A further record-breaking achievement is that Don has taught Latin at Brisbane Grammar School since 1996—and is currently the oldest registered practising teacher in Queensland. In addition to his extensive research and publications (73 published articles in academic journals, 4 books [2 co-authored], and 4 educational videos), Don has also found time to engage in a number of activities in support of UQ, of Friends of Antiquity, and of Alumni Friends. Don Barrett received one of the special Golden Jubilee Awards, presented to four exceptional Foundation Members of Alumni Friends, in July 2015.