The start of a new academic year brings new classes, teachers, assignments, and another chance at academic success; but its most obvious feature is the arrival of new students. This is an event that the University of the West Indies recognises with an annual Matriculation Ceremony – marking the formal admission of all students to the University. This features the act of placing a student’s name on the matricula or roll of members of the University. At one time, all students signed this register; but with a total UWI student population of more than 40,000 – some 17,000 of them at the Mona campus – the administration has gone for a representative route. The incoming student with the highest grades at each campus signs on behalf of all the rest.
So there’s a historic element to the start of this new year, and even a specific link to the UWI Museum. The red matriculation gown that the representative matriculant wears to the ceremony dates back to the start of the university – when it was the University College of the West Indies (UCWI).
The use of the red gown, with its present pattern, was decided in 1949 as a recognition of the service to the fledgling university given by Sir James Irvine, Vice Chancellor and Principal of St Andrews University in Scotland, and Chair of the committee which recommended the establishment of the UCWI.
Students at St Andrews wore a heavy woollen version, whereas the UCWI gown is of lightweight cotton. At recent visitor to the UWI Museum was Donald Hardie, a student at St Andrews from 1946, and President of their Student Representative Council for 1950-1951. He knew that there was a link between St Andrews and UWI, way back then, and wants to find ways to strengthen the connection, which has weakened with time.
He talks about the link, and the real reason behind the gown, in this brief segment:
When the UCWI decided to use the red gown, they got the blessing of Sir James and the permission of the St Andrew’s Senatus Academicus, which agreed that “your University College may adopt a gown after the pattern of the gown in use at this University.”
The red matriculation robe was introduced at the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) in 1950, and it was worn by students until the early 1970s when its use became a bone of contention and a point of resistance. In recent years, red gowns have been re-introduced for specific groups on ceremonial occasions.
The museum currently has three of the original ‘red gowns’. One was worn by UWI alumna Elsa Fairweather, now Leo-Rhynie, who matriculated in 1961 and who rose to become Principal of the UWI Mona Campus. She recalls that gowns were required for formal functions such as dinner, Chapel, special ceremonial functions, visits by dignitaries, and meetings with the Dean, Registrar or Principal. Some lecturers even required that gowns be worn to lectures and tutorials. “On many occasions the gown was used as camouflage for garb which did not properly qualify for a ‘formal’ function, as it was hastily grabbed after an extended laboratory session, so that dinner would not be missed.”
Another UWI alumna Corine McLarty recalled that “the business of wearing gowns to lectures gave a sense of importance to the lecture, and a sense of being part of a place of learning…”