Go to any UT library, pull a book off the shelf, open the front cover, and you’ll find it. Run afoul of the University police (well, hopefully not!), and you’ll see it on the shoulder patches of their uniforms. Stroll into the Gregory Gym annex and you can see it inlaid on the floor. It’s printed on every UT degree, carved in limestone on campus buildings, and displayed prominently on the Main Building for commencement. It’s the official seal of the University of Texas.
What we think of as the modern university made its first appearance in 12th century Europe as a well-organized union of teachers and students. It was an “academic guild,” similar in many ways to the trade guilds that were an important part of medieval towns. An aspiring tradesman would learn his craft first as an apprentice, and progress to a journeyman. When he had fully developed his skills, his final test was to produce a “masterpiece,” usually an object that showed his best skills and all that he had learned. If it passed inspection, he was declared a master tradesman by his peers and allowed to teach others. Academic degrees grew out of this same process. But instead of a masterpiece, a modern-day Ph.D. candidate writes a doctoral dissertation and defends their thesis in front of a faculty committee.
From the beginning, academic insignia and dress were an integral part of university culture. Congregations, lectures, examinations, and graduations all included ritual words, objects, music, and required forms of dress. A scepter or mace carried by the rector identified him as the leader of a university, graduating doctors often received gold rings with their degrees, and hooded capes, which evolved into the modern cap and gown, were worn to identify university members to the public, with special colors and designs for both students and teachers.
The most prized symbol of a university was its seal. Only granted by a pope or monarch, the seal officially recognized a university as a corporation that could conduct legal affairs, and whose members had special rights and privileges different from ordinary townsfolk. The seal was so valuable, often the original carving was kept in a special chest with a triple lock, and several university authorities were required to be present to open it.
Early university seals were usually intricate, elaborate designs: a student at a desk reading a book, the rector in academic garb holding a mace, or an image of a saint special to the university. A Latin inscription, the “motto,” was almost always included, and was sometimes considered the most important part of the design. Later, as knights were permitted to have seals that resembled their personal shields, university seals began to sport coats of arms of their own.
In November 1881, the newly-appointed Board of Regents of the University of Texas convened in Austin for its inaugural meeting. Among the many items on the agenda, a sub-committee of the Board was asked to create a seal for the university. They completed their task in a single afternoon.
The original UT seal borrowed liberally from the seal of the State of Texas, with a five pointed star framed on the left by an oak branch, representing strength, and on the right by an olive branch, signifying peace. Placed within a circle, Universitas Texana labeled the seal as belonging to the University, with the motto Non Sine Pulvera Palma. A well-known Latin phrase, the motto may be translated as, “The prize cannot be won without effort,” or in more modern terms, “Do your best.”
Money was set aside to purchase an embossing stamp, but the University seal wasn’t very popular. Its use limited to decorating degrees and a few other official documents, though a mural of the seal was painted on the wall of the history lecture room in the old Main Building. (See photo above, on the wall to the right. Click on the image for a larger version, and did you notice that all of the co-eds sit toward the front?).
In 1901, Dr. William Battle, a well-known and popular professor of Greek on the Forty Acres, took it upon himself to design a new, more distinctive seal for the University. He may have been prompted by the 1900 vote by students and alumni to recognize orange and white as UT’s official colors, and thought the time was right. Of the original seal, Battle declared, “Except for the word Universitas, it might just as well have been the emblem of the State Penitentiary.”
Battle was thorough. He purchased books on heraldry, and requested copies of seals from universities across the U.S. as well as from Oxford and Cambridge in England. At his own expense,Battle hired a leading firm in heraldic design – the Bailey, Banks and Biddle Company of Philadelphia– as consultants and to sketch prototypes according to his directions.
The process went through several versions, all of which are still preserved in the UT archives at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Battle himself changed the motto to Republic of Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar’s famous quote, “A cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy,” which at the time regularly appeared on the inside covers of most University publications. Battle’s Latin translation of Lamar was Mens Instructa Civitatis Custos, but this sounded a bit clunky. Instead, Battle conferred with friend and colleague Dr. Edwin Fay, head of UT’s Latin Department, who suggested, Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis.
In its final version,Battle described the University seal:
“In conformity with general usage, the design adopts as its central feature the shield form that shows the origin of its heraldic arms. The shield is divided into two fields, the upper white, the lower orange, the University colors. In the lower and larger field are the historic wreath and star of the Great Seal of the State of Texas; in the upper field is an open book, fit symbol of an institution of learning. The shield rests within a circle of blue, the color of sincerity, containing the motto, Disciplina Praesidium Civitatis. This is Professor Edwin W. Fay’s rendering of the apothegm of President Mirabeau B. Lamar, “Cultivated mind is the guardian genius of democracy. Around the disk of blue is a larger disc of red, color of strength, bearing the words, Sigillum Universitatis Texanae.”
Battle presented his seal to UT President William Prather in 1903. Two years later, on October 31, 1905, the Board of Regents officially approved Battle’s proposal, though the words, Sigillum Universitatis Texanae, were changed to the English, “Seal of the University of Texas.” Within a year, the new seal appeared on library bookplates, invitations and programs of University events, and, of course, diplomas.
Images: The Seal of The University of Texas at Austin; Seal of the University of Bologna, Italy, among the earliest of European universities; the history lecture room in the old Main Building, from the 1900 Cactus yearbook; an early version of the UT seal, found in the William J. Battle Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.