[Column] Gowns and traditions

Columnist Birgit van Driel wondered about the importance and risks associated with academic traditions. To gown or not to gown? That is the question.

Birgit van Driel: When a technical degree programme suits you, it is not difficult. (Foto: Sam Rentmeester)

I’ll start this column with a confession: I want a gown! The fact that I haven’t chosen the right career for wearing one professionally is beside the point. Nevertheless, every time I attend an inaugural lecture and a brand new professor walks on stage in his or her gown, I can’t help but think, ‘I want one!’

Professors no longer walk around campus in their gowns, but academic life (of students and scientists) is still drenched with traditions, with the wearing of a gown being the most visible of them. I have also participated in academic traditions. For example, I went around in a morning coat when I was on the board of my student association. And naturally I attended my own PhD defence ceremony. At the time, I wanted to wear a pink suit instead of a dark-coloured one, but I ended up following the tradition (in this case specified in the Doctoral Regulations).

Nowadays, gowns are mostly worn for festive occasions like PhD ceremonies, inaugural lectures and the opening of the academic year. During the opening of the academic year at the University of Utrecht, Sanli Faez symbolically took off his jacket, and he was soon followed by Naomi Ellemers, who took off her gown. Sanli argued that the comfort and the protection provided by the gown only exist because of the discomfort it causes to other colleagues. There seems to be a fragile balance between traditions as promotors of equality or as symbols that are damaging to an inclusive and socially safe environment.

The gown can play a role in attracting new students

On the one hand, academic clothing regulations fulfil the same purpose as a school or police uniform: you are judged by what you say and do and not by what you are wearing. It ensures equality at the expense of diversity. I can’t help but wonder if I would have received a cum laude distinction with my doctorate degree if I had worn a pink suit… Furthermore, the gown can also play a role in attracting new students. I mean, what could possibly spark the imagination more than hundreds of gown-wearing professors cycling through the streets of Delft to talk at primary schools about their research during ‘Meet the professor’ (in Dutch)? At the same time, traditions can be intimidating, especially if you are not very familiar with them, which could be a barrier to participating actively in academic life. In addition, the academic world should aim for content-based discussions between equal partners. During such discussions, it should not matter if you happen to be highly learned (professor), very learned (PhD graduate) or a PhD student.

In my opinion, we should maintain traditions including gowns in the academic world. They are symbols that we need to explain clearly and that we would do well to modernise every now and then. It is these show elements that add colour to the (sometimes stuffy) academic world, and thus they have an important element of attraction. The discussion about these symbols does reflect the increased attention paid to abuse of power and social insecurity in academia, so let us focus on that so I can continue to daydream about a gown without feeling guilty.         

Birgit van Driel started working as a Policy Officer at Strategic Development in 2021. She returned to TU Delft where she started her studies back in 2006. She’s been affiliated to the Faculties of IDE (first year), AS (bachelor’s) and 3mE (PhD). After earning her PhD, she worked as a Strategy Consultant at Kearney and a Program Officer at NWO-AES. 

Columnist Birgit van Driel

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