Organisation - June 15, 2017

What’s the done thing?

Albert Sikkema

Noblesse oblige. A full professorship may come with new privileges but it also comes with new obligations and rulebooks. No trainers or sandals under that gown, please. And be sure to don and doff your cap at the right moment. A brief introduction to Wageningen etiquette.

Photos: Guy Ackermans

Wageningen professors can often be seen fumbling nervously with their academic caps. The protocol for this headwear demands a certain vigilance. The rule is: you must have your cap on when you are in procession or delivering a speech, and off when seated. Watch rector Arthur Mol at the next Dies Natalis (Founders Day) at the university. Every time he introduces a new speaker, on goes his cap. And every time he sits down, off it goes again. The commonest mistake made by professors is forgetting to take it off.

All this applies to men only, though. Women professors are free to keep their caps on if they want. Emeritus professor Just Vlak, the co-author of the Vademecum for Professors (see box), has no idea why that is. Renata Michel, the university’s beadle, does know: repeatedly doffing and donning her cap can ruin a woman’s hairstyle.

This Wageningen cap protocol is typical of the sort of thing you have to explain to new professors, says Vlak, because such rules vary per university. At some universities, for instance, you only put your cap on to speak.

Gown for sale

The rules about academic gowns are simpler: you have to wear them on all official occasions such as Founders Day, an inaugural lecture or a PhD ceremony. New professors are expected to buy a gown, which can be done in several ways. You can order a new one from a Wageningen supplier for about 1100 euros. Or you can buy a second-hand gown from your predecessor or another departing professor. They might put up a notice in the dressing room, or the beadle will act as intermediary. There is a small difficulty at the moment: a lot of male professors are leaving and a lot of women are coming in, so there is not much call for large sizes.

These professors know how it’s done: at the end of the ceremony, just before standing up, on go the caps again.
These professors know how it’s done: at the end of the ceremony, just before standing up, on go the caps again.

But not all professors have their own gowns. Special professors, who might only be in Wageningen one day a week and not have to attend very many formal occasions, often borrow a gown when they need one. There are eight gowns available at the Aula and they are borrowed a lot. Sometimes too much, because some associate professors enjoy mingling with the ranks of the illustrious. That is not allowed: wearing a gown is strictly the privilege of the full professors.

Although that is likely to change when a number of associate professors become eligible to supervise PhDs. They’ll need to be able to hire a gown then too.

Red stilettos

These are not the only rules for a professor’s dress code, though. Male professors should wear black or grey shoes – not brown. And professors seen wearing sandals or trainers under their gowns – as some do, says the beadle – are called to account. Court shoes are allowed, though. The most remarkable footwear Michel ever spotted under a gown was Thea Hilhorst’s red stilettos.

There was a time – we’re talking about the 1970s and 80s of course – when some professors didn’t want to wear gowns. They didn’t go with their anti-establishment style. But Vlak never hears such sentiments anymore. Nowadays, if professors attend Founders Day in their ‘civvies’, it’s because they were too late (or too lazy) to get changed in time to walk to the ceremony in procession.

Inaugural lecture

According to the rules outlined in the Vademecum, a new professor must first deliver an inaugural lecture  – in academic dress – before appearing in this attire at another university ceremony. The university assumes that this lecture will take place within one year of being appointed. ‘That gets stretched a bit,’ says Vlak. Which is an understatement: many professors have been here years and still haven’t put in an appearance in the Aula to explain how they intend to fulfil their task. Notorious spoilsports are Ton Bisseling and Jaap Bakker, two professors in their sixties who have been walking around in their gowns since 1998 without having given an inaugural lecture. Perhaps they can combine it with their valedictory lecture. That would be economical for them, as the drinks after an inaugural lecture are traditionally on the professor, while those after a valedictory lecture are on the university.

Serving pizza instead of dainty nibbles? That was going too far

And even the drinks parties at the Aula are done by the book. Custom dictates elegant glasses and dainty nibbles, preferably served by smartly dressed members of a student fraternity. There was once a professor who wanted to serve pizza from cardboard boxes instead of the prescribed nibbles. That was definitely not on. She also wanted cushions on the floor so that her guests could chat sitting cross-legged. Not on either. Save that for the informal afterparty in a café.

Hard rock in the Aula

There is more leeway than you might think, though. For the special professor of Reformation Philosophy, the organist at the Aula agreed to play a Bach piece which went well with his inaugural lecture on biotechnology. And you are allowed to make music yourself in the Aula. As Professor Jeff Harvey so memorably did when, after playing ‘opponent’ at a PhD ceremony, he produced his guitar and amplifier and proceeded to play hard rock throughout the drinks party. Was that acceptable? Well, it was a fait accompli and it was certainly unforgettable.

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By the book

Vademecum, for professors of Wageningen University & Research contains all the codes of conduct for professors. It also explains how to go about procedures such as applying for a PhD graduation or dealing with a suspected case of academic fraud. It was published by WU-genoten, an association of Wageningen professors and their partners. This club lays on the annual Founders Day dinner and regularly hosts discussions about current issues at the university. Emeritus professor Just Vlak, co-author of the Vademecum: ‘It is the only forum in which the rector can still have an informal chat with the professors.’ Dos and don’ts apply here too: no money talk.

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  • Anne Morbach

    Ik vond het artiekel wel interessant, ik wou altijd al weten hoe dat met de baret moest. Toch vind ik er iets erg tegenvallen: In plaats van "de zestigers" Ton Bisseling en Jaap Bakker te vragen waarom zij geen inaugurele reden hielden word er gewoon iets verzonnen (en dan nog "financiele reden" ook!), wat dan opgeschreven word als een feit. Dat is toch geen journalisme? Zoiets verwacht ik in een tabloid, maar niet in de Resource.