Most obviously, there is the issue of numbers. Mounting a graduation ceremony is an intricate logistical exercise which becomes more difficult with size. If students turn up late, for example, it is much easier to adjust the lists with small rather than large numbers. Again, there is the problem of time. My sense is that the maximum length of ceremony is around an hour and a half, after which audience attention rapidly expires. Given the need to provide punctuation in the form of speeches and awards of honorary degrees, I suspect that this means a maximum of around four hundred or so students can be accommodated at any ceremony if each student is to get any individual attention at all. Some universities are dealing with this problem by bringing students up in groups (a solution which I personally hate: surely we should do the students the courtesy of at least some personal contact?)
In turn, assuming that my suppositions are about right, then, as student numbers grow, the number of ceremonies needs to expand. But this is becoming a problem. My own university provides 14 ceremonies a year, grouped into two days in Winter and five days in Summer with two ceremonies on each day. But some universities have already spilled over beyond a week in Summer whilst others do more than two ceremonies a day.
There is another consequent problem – many universities have to find auditoriums that can accommodate larger events. Again, this is not an easy task and can involve trade-offs between beautiful and grand older spaces which can only take limited numbers and newer spaces (sometimes not even the university’s own) which can take larger numbers. Furthermore, if ceremonies become too big the vital importance of what the political theorist Josiah Ober has called inter-visibility – the ability to see response which creates meaning and common knowledge — starts to be threatened, even with (or indeed, in spite of) all the modern paraphernalia of amplification and big screens to hand.
Then there is the problem of cost. Some universities now charge for ceremonies (I personally think that this breaks the link of trust with the student but there we are) and nearly all restrict the number of guests, often quite severely. Whatever solution is adopted cost is certainly not a trivial matter – I suspect that the rate of graduation ceremony inflation is far outpacing national norms currently!
Finally, the globalization of higher education means that it can no longer be assumed that all graduation ceremonies take place in one place. Making ceremonies in places which were not designed for the purpose can be a real challenge and simply having robes to hand does not work.
Probably, at some point during the year, somewhere in the world, there is a graduation ceremony taking place. At one time, it looked like these events might become a thing of the past but the apparatus of gowns, music, certificates, photographs, and films now just seems to keep on expanding. One for the anthropologists to explain. In the meantime, I’ll just keep on participating: brushing up my lines, and strengthening my arm muscles for all that hand-shaking.