Why are caps and gowns worn? What is the meaning of the tassel, the hood? Why do professors dress like medieval magistrates?

This primer on the various elements that go into URI’s commencement ceremony will give you an idea of what you’ll see, and what it all means.

Honorary Degrees

At URI’s commencement each year, we look to honor those who have led exemplary lives, both personally and professionally. Take a look at how we choose our honorary degree recipients.

Banners and Flags

The backdrop for the Commencement Exercises are the banners of the 10 degree-granting colleges and schools that make up the University, as well as University College and University Libraries.

commencement speaker with gonfalons in background
2017 Platform Party

Academic colors:

  • Arts and Sciences, white and golden yellow
  • Business, drab
  • Education & Professional Studies, light blue
  • Engineering, orange
  • Environment and Life Sciences, maize
  • Graduate School, blue and gold
  • Health Sciences, sage
  • Nursing, apricot
  • Oceanography, aqua
  • Pharmacy, olive green

Rhode Island flags framing Commencement:

  • The Flag Act of 1777 flag, Betsy Ross variation
  • The flag of the Battle of Rhode Island (1778)
  • The Grand Union flag (1776)
  • The Rhode Island First Regiment flag (1775)
  • The Rhode Island Colony flag (1774)
  • The Meteor flag (1707)
  • The Union flag (1707)
  • The Red Ensign (1620 in New England)

These flags help to deepen our sense of tradition and community history.

Behind these, stand flags of the many countries represented by our graduating international students and the countries with which the University has study abroad or exchange programs.

These flags remind us of the growing importance of cultural diversity, internationalization, and global awareness.


Each college is represented by a gonfalon, which is placed along the back of the stage.  These flags have been used since medieval times as symbols of state or office and are now traditionally used by colleges and universities.

The background of each college’s gonfalon is the official URI dark blue; the stripes on the gonfalons are the traditional colors of the academic hoods. 


Color Guard

The University of Rhode Island color guard will present colors and lead the academic procession. The Grand Marshal, carrying the University Mace, will follow the color guard. The faculty and the candidates for degrees will follow the Grand Marshal.

Color guard holding flags

Academic Dress

Academic dress has its origin in the colorful gowns and hoods of the Middle Ages. In the United States, a common code of academic dress was not adopted until 1895. This decreed three kinds of gowns and three hood lengths for bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees. Hoods are lined with the color or colors of the university conferring the degree, and are bordered with a color representing the subject of study for which the degree is conferred.

Throughout the Commencement Exercises, you see the pomp and ceremony of a feudal society and the intricacies of the medieval art of heraldry—in the ritual, the dress, the ceremonial accents, such as the University Mace, and in the wording of the degrees conferred.

University maceUniversity Mace

The University Mace was donated by the graduating class of 1963. It is made of gold-plated sterling silver and is mounted on a three-foot rosewood staff. The URI seal, three inches in diameter, crowns the staff, with a sketch of Davis Hall on the back. Davis is one of the University’s oldest buildings and is the site of the college bell tower.

Presidential Medallion

The medallion worn by the president was donated to the University as a 100th birthday gift by goldsmith and University of Rhode Island alumnus Robert C. Corio, Class of 1973.

The medallion, 18-karat gold and about the size of a half dollar, is stamped with the University seal and is bordered by an elegant, rounded setting. The chain is made of small gold ovals linked together, each engraved with the name of a University president emeritus.

Through the years, the name of each new president will be added to the medallion.