Elizabeth Garrett, 13th President of Cornell, in full academic regalia, on her way to Friday's inauguration ceremony.
That blurry image was a detail, magnified over 10 times, of what was intended to be a panoramic photo of the contrast between the redness of Cornell’s homecoming weekend and the green grass and brilliant blue sky of a splendid late summer day. I only realized a few minutes later that the figure at the right of the clipping was the focus of the festive solemnities. This realization led to more fruitless rumination on the material underpinnings of higher education, specifically on the role of academic rituals in maintaining some measure of public support for the mission of higher education, and by extension for research in pure mathematics, which was the actual purpose of my visit.
I have taken part in academic rituals only on a very few occasions. Here is one of them, already mentioned at the bottom of this page. The man on the left is Gérard Laumon, even more elegant than usual in his excruciatingly uncomfortable habit d’académicien.
The ceremony was preceded by a fanfare of the Garde Républicaine, brandishing their ceremonial swords, less elaborate than the one you can watch here (but much louder than the video suggests).
French academics, university presidents included, do not dress up in robes or ceremonial outfits of any kind beyond the walls of the Institut de France. The dignity of the profession is reaffirmed in other rituals, for example the induction into the Légion d’Honneur. Here are a few photos taken at the sumptuous Elysée Palace in 2012, when Fields Medalists Ngô Bau Chau and Cédric Villani (both of whom figure prominently in MWA) were named Chevaliers de la Légion d’Honneur by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The honor is not contagious; but when Sarkozy suddenly stepped down from the podium and waded into the crowd, the assembled guests parted like the Red Sea before Moses as a precaution against being forced either to shake the Presidential Hand or to face the courroux présidentiel in case of explicit refusal.