History and Symbolism

Image of graduates smiling in their regalia and posing for the camera


The academic regalia generally follow the standards established by the Intercollegiate Bureau of Academic Costume, an organization formed by American educators in 1894 to bring order to a growing profusion of academic costumes. The robe for the Bachelor of Science degree has pointed sleeves and is designed to be worn closed; the robe for the Master’s degree likewise has pointed sleeves but may be worn either opened or closed.

The Doctoral degree robe, which may be worn opened or closed, has a velvet panel on each side of the front opening, extending around the neck and to the bottom of the hem in front; three horizontal velvet bars are positioned on the upper part of each of the full, bell-shaped sleeves. A distinct design for the MIT Doctoral degree robe was adopted in 1995, modified in 2015. It is silver-gray with a cardinal red faille panel outlined in silver-gray piping on each side of the front opening, extending around the neck to a V-point in the back and to the bottom of the hem in front. Cardinal red faille bars outlined in silver-gray piping are positioned on the upper part of each of the sleeves. An eight-sided, silver-gray tam with a cardinal red tassel was designed to be worn with the robe. As this robe is optional, the all-black robe is also worn by those with MIT Doctoral degrees. At MIT, only recipients of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and Doctor of Science (ScD) degrees are invested with hoods. The Doctoral degree hood has a rounded base and is four feet long. The velvet trim signifies by color the type of Doctoral degree—for MIT, blue trim for PhD degrees and yellow for ScD degrees. The lining of the hood carries the school’s colors—cardinal red and silver-gray for MIT. For the Joint Program in Applied Ocean Science and Engineering, which leads to a single degree awarded by MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the WHOI color of Old Glory blue is added to the MIT colors in the hood lining. As the hood lies against the wearer’s back, it should be arranged so that the lining colors show.

President Sally Kornbluth wears a silver-gray academic robe whose open sleeves, lined with red satin, have four cardinal red bars outlined in silver-gray piping. The silver-gray velvet panels on the front of the gown are outlined in red and embroidered with the MIT seal. The red velvet hood with traditional red and gray chevrons honors her as the 18th president of MIT.

Image of Stephen Baker placing the ceremonial mace in it's holder at the start of the OneMIT Ceremony

The ceremonial mace

The ceremonial mace carried by the Chief Marshal leading the OneMIT Ceremony procession was a gift to the Institute by the Class of 1907 on the occasion of its 50th reunion. The silver gilt mace is the creation of class member Leverett Cutten. The stylized, eight-bladed head is surmounted with a beaver—the engineer of the animal world and MIT’s mascot. Immediately below the head are two octagonal knops with a woven-design spherical knop between. Halfway down the shaft is another octagonal knop. At the base of the mace is a spherical knop depicting the seal of the Institute, a presentation inscription, and oak leaves with a pendent life-size acorn at the bottom of the knop. The oak leaves and acorn are symbols of strength. The names of the Presidents of MIT and the years of their presidencies are engraved on the shaft. Embossed on the panels of the octagonal knops are symbols for the general areas of physics (nuclear orbits and the Einstein equation), mathematics (diagram for the Pythagorean theorem), humanities (open book), biology (microscope), mechanics (enmeshed gears and turbine blades), electromagnetism (current-carrying coil), chemistry (retort), civil engineering (transit), earth sciences (globe and stars), naval science (anchor), architecture (Ionic capital), and aeronautics (wing section). It was not intended that the symbols represent courses of MIT instruction; rather, they express technological culture whose meanings would remain unchanged throughout the years.

Image of Lily Tsai carrying the ceremonial crook. She is wearing her regalia.

The shepherd’s staff

The shepherd’s staff is carried by the Chair of the Faculty in the principals division of the OneMIT Ceremony procession. It was a gift to the Institute in 2023 by outgoing Chair of the Faculty Lily L. Tsai and designed by Professor Brandon Clifford. The staff symbolizes the chair’s role as leader of the faculty (the flock). This staff maintains the crook, though reimagined as a temporal device for an institution that measures its work across decades and centuries. It is a terrestrial artifact, carved in concert with the two celestial bodies that govern the pace of the academic experience. The moon is represented by a brass dome at the base of the staff while the crook wraps around an imaginary sphere, the two figures defining Earth’s relative size and distance to the moon at the perigee of its orbit. The crook forms an angle of 23.5° to serve as a solar ranging device. When the staff is aligned with the sun at noon on the equinox, this angle defines the limits of the sun’s path throughout the year, marking the solstice. The staff is carved from a black walnut tree that grew into the air, snatching carbon molecules from the atmosphere when aided by energy from the sun. It is hardened by the seasonal shifts of the Earth’s tilt. If ignited, the staff will burn, revealing the energy it has preserved through time. A hidden pocket holds 25 brass plates, each inscribed with the name and dates of service of the Chairs of the Faculty who held it. This position is held for two academic years. The staff will exhaust its plates after half a century of use.

Black walnut is also the wood used to craft the batons carried by Commencement marshals during ceremony processions.

Image of President Sally Kornbluth speaking at the podium which shows the MIT seal

The MIT seal

The MIT seal was adopted on December 26, 1864 by the Corporation (MIT’s governing board) in a design recommended by the committee on the seal, of which founder and President William Barton Rogers and the Treasurer of the Institute were members. The Corporation records cover only the appointment of the committee members and the actual approval of the seal; there is no indication as to the deliberations that led to the choice of the design. The laborer at the anvil and scholar with a book embody the educational philosophy of William Barton Rogers and the other incorporators of the Institute as stated in their 1860 proposal OBJECTS AND PLAN OF AN INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, that “. . . the interests of Commerce and Arts, as well as of General Education, call for the most earnest cooperation of intelligent culture with industrial pursuits.” The science and arts volumes on the pedestal and motto Mens et Manus (Latin for “mind and hand”) reflect the ideal of cooperation between knowledge and practical science. The year 1861 refers to the date (April 10) when MIT was incorporated by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. A number of variations on the design have emerged through the years, but the original 1864 version remains the official seal of the Institute.