You are here: Home The University Events The Opening of the Academic Year History page

History page


The History of the Opening of the Academic Year

Academic dress (cap and gown) chain of office and scepter

The formal ceremony for the opening of the academic year has taken place every year since the establishment of the University of Bonn on October 18, 1818.  

In the early years, each rector was elected for a year and then passed on his office to a successor. During the first ceremonial procession, the university office holders and faculty members processed into the ceremonial hall, following the university scepter held aloft by the beadle. This annual ceremony continued every year to the present day. Symbo s of academic office – a scepter and chain – have a longer tradition, insstituted as they were, during the late Middle Ages.


The first award of a university scepter as the symbol of the authority of the university rector was recorded in the 14th century. While medieval university rectors held considerable powers as part of a wide jurisdiction, the modern office has changed, and the powers symbolized by the scepter have changed with it. Today, the university symbols no longer encapsulate the powers of the office of the rector, but the independence of the university and the unity of research and teaching.  


Following the end of the Napoleonic Empire, the Prussian state sought to establish a university in its newly-acquired Rhineland province. The decision was taken to open a university in Bonn in preference to the Catholic Cologne and Protestant Duisburg, due to the Enlightenment values including tolerance widespread in the town. The Protestant Duisburg University was closed in 1818 and its scepter was transferred to the new university in Bonn. 


The university had to wait some ten years before it received its official chain of office and permission to carry the name of the monarch who founded it – Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia – due to student radicalism. The monarch was repulsed by the murder by the student Karl Ludwig Sand of the writer and vocal critic of the student movement August von Kotzebue in 1819. The ensuing crackdown on the student movement, promulgated in the Carlsbad decrees, resulted in the suppression of student associations and controls on university life including injunctions on certain professors close to the student movement such as Ernst Moritz Arndt in Bonn. Friedrich Wilhelm III did not permit the university in Bonn to carry his name until 1828.


Only after the death of Friedrich Wilhelm III did his more reform-minded son and successor Friedrich Wilhelm IV repeal the repressive legislation. In 1853 he presented the rector with a chain of office bearing the likeness of the deceased monarch. He also granted professors at the University of Bonn the right to wear the academic dress of cap and gown and established the faculty colors still in use today. 


The University of Bonn still embodies the tradition of Enlightenment values and academic independence first established over 200 years ago and which have survived all the attacks on them.

Document Actions