Keys to knowledge: Penn presidential inaugural traditions

The inauguration ceremony for Penn’s ninth president Liz Magill on Oct. 21 will incorporate decades-long traditions and centuries-old University symbols.

Archival parchments and ephemera from Archives on a table.
The oldest sealed diplomas in the Archives collection, from 1760 and 1768, have early examples of the Penn seal of the corporation. Another, dated 1789, has the orrery seal.

Three solid brass keys, each wrapped in white tissue paper and kept together in the University Archives, have been waiting 18 years to be handed to a new president of the University of Pennsylvania.

When Liz Magill accepts those keys during her inauguration on the morning of Friday, Oct. 21, she will be making history, as the ninth president of Penn, and also as the third consecutive woman to fully hold the office, a first in the Ivy League.

Amy Gutmann was Penn president from 2004 to 2022, resigning in February to become the United States Ambassador to Germany. Wendell Pritchett was interim president until Magill took office on July 1. Judith Rodin was the first woman to fully hold the office of president in the Ivy League, from 1994 to 2004. Claire Fagin was Penn’s interim president from 1993 to 1994.

From provosts to presidents

Magill is the 27th head of Penn, including founder Benjamin Franklin, who was the first president of trustees. The first administrative head was the Rev. William Smith, who became provost of the College of Philadelphia, the predecessor to the University, in 1755.

The first provost to have an official inauguration ceremony was the Rev. William Heathcote DeLancey, in 1828. The last was Charles Custis Harrison in 1895. Subsequent provosts would give inaugural addresses, usually coinciding with Commencement.

The University amended the Statutes to create the office of the president, ushering in what is considered the modern era, and in 1930 Thomas Sovereign Gates became the first executive to bear the title. But he chose not to have an inauguration event, and neither did the four presidents who followed him, instead just giving inaugural addresses: George William McClelland (1944-1948), Harold Edward Stassen (1948-1953), Gaylord Probasco Harnwell (1953-1970), and Martin Meyerson (1970-1981).

Left: Penn President Hackney inauguration; middle, Penn President Judith Rodin receiving the honorary keys; right, Amy Gutmann shaking hands at her inauguration.
(Left to right) President Sheldon Hackney (right) during his 1981 inaugural procession; President Judith Rodin (center), with the University badge and ceremonial keys, at her 1994 inauguration, with former Board of Trustees Chair Alvin Shoemaker; President Amy Gutmann (left) receives the keys from then-Board of Trustees Chair James S. Riepe in 2004.(Images: Courtesy of Penn Archives)

The first formal Penn presidential inauguration was in 1981, for Francis Sheldon Hackney, who served until 1993. “With the Hackney administration Penn moved into adopting the formal occasion of inauguration, with the standard insignias of office: the charter, the mace, the badge,” says acting University Archivist J.M. Duffin.

Magill will be only the fourth Penn president to have a formal inauguration ceremony, which will continue many long-held traditions—including the formal academic regalia, an academic procession, and a presidential inaugural address—along with newer traditions, including an academic symposium, an inaugural poet, and a picnic and live music concert.

“The inauguration celebration will be part Penn, part Philadelphia, and part Liz Magill,” said Vice President and University Secretary Medha Narvekar.

The inaugural procession

The University Secretary leads the academic procession carrying the University mace, a symbol of authority. A gift in 1955, it is adorned with the Penn seal and coat of arms, the William Penn and Benjamin Franklin family coats of arms, a depiction of the orrery invented by Penn’s David Rittenhouse in the 18th century, and a thistle symbolizing the University’s early ties with the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Weighing four pounds and measuring three feet, four inches, it is used in official ceremonies, and otherwise displayed on the main floor of College Hall.

All former Penn presidents and provosts are invited to attend and process. And it is tradition to invite presidents and delegates from other universities to attend the inauguration and to march, wearing the regalia of their school. They process according to the date their university was founded, the oldest first. The procession also includes trustees, deans, senior administrators, faculty, invited speakers, and elected officials.

Following tradition for her inauguration, Magill will wear her red-and-blue Penn presidential regalia, including a blue velvet cap.

The inauguration celebration will be part Penn, part Philadelphia, and part Liz Magill.   Vice President and University Secretary Medha Narvekar

The Cyrus H.K. Curtis pipe organ, dating to 1926, will be played as the procession enters Irvine Auditorium, which is expected to be filled with more than 1,200 people. The procession and ceremony will also be livestreamed on Magill’s Inauguration website, another inaugural first.

“There is so much grandeur to the inauguration ceremony,” Narvekar says. “It is such a historic moment for the University and for everyone who loves and cares about Penn: the faculty, students, staff, and alumni.”

The ceremony

During the ceremony, following the words of investiture, the Chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees, Scott L. Bok, will hand the president the University badge, created in 1981, which signifies the authority of the chief executive.

Round and made of silver, the badge is four inches in diameter. The badge is worn on a silver chain made of alternating round and oblong flexible links. On one side is the corporate seal of the University, first used in 1756, which shows a pyramid of seven books, each titled with an academic discipline. The reverse has the “orrery seal” designed for the University by alumnus Francis Hopkinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, in 1782. It displays the mechanical planetarium, the orrery, an innovative scientific apparatus made by Rittenhouse, who was a Penn astronomy professor, vice provost, and trustee.

The Trustees chair will then present the president with the keys, held by a brass ring. Each slightly different, six to seven inches long, the keys together weigh one pound. Handwritten on a card stored with the keys are the words: “Insignia used at the Inauguration of Charles C. Harrison, A.M. as Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, June 11, 1895.” The Governor of the Commonwealth, Daniel Hastings, presented the keys to Harrison, saying they were “symbols of the authority with which he is here and now invested, and of the solemn responsibilities now laid upon him.”

The keys may have been those presented to the previous provost, William Pepper, at his inauguration on Feb. 22, 1881, when Gov. Henry Hoyt said the keys were the “symbols of your full investiture with all the authority they can confer upon you.” Pepper “gladly” accepted, “not being unmindful of the weighty responsibilities attaching to it.”

The last time the keys were used was during Gutmann’s inauguration on Oct. 15, 2004. James S. Riepe, then-chair of the Board of Trustees, described the keys as the “symbols of the custodianship of the University,” and the “emblems of the authority with which you are now invested and the solemn responsibilities that are upon you.”

A special Libraries display

Resting on a blue velvet pillow trimmed in red and gold, the keys will be part of a display set up in the historic Lea Library on the sixth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library on Oct. 21 and 22, “Charters, Seals, and Keys: Penn Presidential Insignia and Inaugurations.”


The official charter, dated 1755—the document from Thomas Penn and Richard Penn that incorporated the university, giving the trustees power to grant degrees—will be showcased. An earlier charter, dated 1753, will be there as well, which incorporated the school that was the precursor to the college and university.

Visitors can also view the earliest foundational governance document of the University, the “Constitutions Of the Publick Academy In the City of Philadelphia,” dated Nov. 13, 1749, and signed by the trustees, including the founder Benjamin Franklin with his distinctive cursive “B. Franklin.” And the “Oaths of Faculty and Trustees [to King George II], 1755-1776,” signed in July of 1755, including Franklin, who was the president of the board. (In one section the trustees pledge annual sums to the new institution, and Franklin promised 10 pounds per anum for five years.)

The oldest sealed diplomas in the Archives collection, a bachelor’s degree for Lindsay Coats dated 1760, as well as an M.D. for James Tilton dated 1768, have the earliest examples of the Penn seal, the pile of books, surrounded in a semicircle by the University motto: Leges sine Moribus vanae (Laws without morals are in vain.) A diploma from 1789, for George Lochman, has an example of the orrery seal, attached to a faded blue ribbon. Other items will be displayed as well, including pamphlets with inaugural speeches, and drafts of designs for the University’s coat of arms adopted in 1933.

And, of course, the three brass keys on their blue velvet pillow, until the moment they are wrapped up and put away to await the next inauguration.