The Order of the Gown held a debate on Thursday, September 30 at 5:30 p.m. to discuss whether the University should adopt universal gowning procedures.
The proposition, arguing for universal gowning, was composed of Molly Jirgal (C ’24), Tashinga Vhumisai (C’ 23), and Christian Shushok (C ’24) .
Shushok started off the debate by outlining the background of their argument, and how the question came to be raised: “While the physical presence of gowns has been a constant, the Order has been corrupted from its roots. When the concept of gowns was first introduced in 1871, gowns did not hold the same baggage that they have today. At their inception, gowns were intended to be a piece of Sewanee attire that was to be revered and held up by all students.”
Shushok reminded the audience of the gown’s symbolism as it stands for the students’ continuous pursuit of academics, art, and service while they are on the campus.
He also pointed out that years after the gown’s initial creation, a member of Sewanee’s community decided to have the gown only be given to those of a certain GPA benchmark. He noted that in the eyes of the proposition this formed a group of students that were purposely set apart from the others solely based on performance in the classroom. Furthermore, he argued that the gown stands as a barrier to incoming students and current students who one day hope to gain their gown. Shushok argued that students who attended private high schools, had tutors,or took AP classes were more likely to achieve their gowns more quickly than other students.
The opposition, composed of Alex Robinson (C ’23), Jack Sparkman (C’ 23), and Alexis McKnight (C ’22), disagreed with the idea of Universal gowning and presented their argument to reserve gowns for those who achieve the required GPA. Nevertheless, the opposition was receptive to expanding gowning requirements.
Sparkman, who is not a member of the Order of the Gown, said, “I am not here today to speak about meritocracy. I’m here today to speak in real terms about the gown. There is no shame in not being gowned. I feel none tonight standing in front of you.”
He continued, “Gowning indicates only a small part of the academic process. It’s a symbol of academic success but its value is merely sentimental for those who have been gowned.”
The opposition also argued that the gown as a representation of academic achievement has a symbolic meaning that would be lost if everyone received a gown automatically. Sparkman cited forms of protest that use the symbolism of the gown, arguing that such act would hold less meaning if the meaning of the gown changed.
McKnight, the current Order of the Gown President, argued, “The issues of inequalities within the Order of the Gown are not solved by universal gowning. They are solved by changing the rules of the gown.”
McKnight cited several aspects of gowning that should be re-evaluated, such as automatic gowning for proctors, gown requirements for transfer students, and privileges for gowned students in class registration and room draw.
McKnight furthered her point by discussing that if everyone receives a gown upon arrival at the University, it takes away the academic goal that people strive for in order to receive a gown.
McKnight acknowledged that the Order of the Gown is an exclusionary system. However, she compared the Order to other exclusionary institutions like Greek life, and asked the question if all of these should be removed since they are all exclusionary.
Jirgal, a member of the proposition, discussed the benefits of gowning upon arrival to campus versus after the GPA benchmark is achieved: “Over the past year the gown has focused on lowering the barrier of inclusion for those that qualify, and that should absolutely be celebrated. However, many of us still hurdle the wall of inequality they were born in front of.”
She continued: “The way our society functions disallows the Order of the Gown to function equitably. While we as a society address the systems that allow individuals to be born in front of a wall, the Order of the Gown should step back as an institution that enhances inequality and inequity and step up as one that celebrates the successes of every member.”
Julia McClain (C’25) was an audience member during the Universal Gowning Debate, and she shared her thoughts while listening to both arguments: “As a freshman, I appreciated being able to see the student body gather together and talk about important issues that affect this campus. Both sides had organized and thoughtful arguments, and I appreciated the Q and A session that allowed the audience to participate in the debate. This was my first time attending an event like this, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.”
The crowd took a vote, and the motion for universal gowning did not pass.