Notes on Columbia Commencements
THE FIRST COMMENCEMENT of King's College, as Columbia University was
first called, was held on June 21,1758, in St. George's Chapel on
Beekman Street. Seven men were graduated with the degree of Bachelor of
Arts, and four honorary degrees were conferred. The exercises were conducted
almost entirely in Latin during the King's College period, and for yet
another century classical orations formed a regular part of the program.
These orations, usually in English, are now presented at the Columbia
College Clas s Day.
During the pre-Revolutionary period, the Commencement procession passed
through the city streets from the College building on Park Place to
Trinity Church or one of its chapels. When King's College became
Columbia, in 1784, Commencement was held in various churches and halls.
After the College moved to Forty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue in
1857, Commencement usually took place at the Academy of Music at
Fourteenth Street and Irving Place. Since 1898 Commencement has been
held on the Campus at Morningside--at first in the University gymnasium,
and since 1926 out of doors on Low Plaza.
THE ACADEMIC COSTUME worn now was originated in the Middle Ages when a
warm gown and hood were useful for scholar and cleric in unheated
buildings. The distinctive gown served to set the student apart from his
fellow citizens, hence the perennial controversy between "Town and Gown."
Until after the American Civil War, Columbia students wore caps and gowns
daily while in residence.
In 1894, an American Intercollegiate Commission met at Columbia for the
purpose of standardizing the style and color for robes and hoods. At
that time it was decided that all robes would be black; bachelors' gowns
to be made of worsted stuff with pointed sleeves; masters' gowns of silk
with long closed sleeves; doctors' gowns faced with black velvet with
three bars across the sleeves. Hoods were made of the same materials as
the gowns, the length varying with the degree. Only the lining of the
hood indicated the university—for Columbia, light blue with a white
chevron. The border color indicated the academic discipline in which the
degree was earned.
Universities in America have often begun to adopt more colorful robes.
The Columbia gown is slate gray. The doctoral gown, with facing of black
velvet, has sleeve bars in the color of the wearer's subject. A Columbia
crown is embroidered at chest height. The mortarboard is now a
four-cornered tam in soft material with gold tassel. The masters' and
bachelors' gowns are similar but without the velvet trimming. The
interior of the hood displays the University colors as in the past, and
the facing and backing of the hood are in the standard degree colors:
White: arts and letters
Dark blue: philosophy
Golden yellow: science
Brown: architecture and the fine arts
Light brown: business
Lemon yellow: library service
Light blue: education
Peacock blue: international and public affairs
Citron yellow: social work
Salmon pink: public health
Other American universities are also represented by their hoods: Brown,
seal brown with a cardinal chevron; the University of California, gold
with a blue chevron; the University of Chicago, maroon; Cornell,
cardinal with two white chevrons; Dart-mouth, dark green; Harvard, crimson;
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bright red with a gray chevron;
the University of Pennsylvania, cardinal with a navy blue chevron;
Princeton, orange with a black chevron; Yale, dark blue.
Bachelors' gowns and hoods in British universities are generally black,
and the hoods are edged with white fur; masters' hoods are lined with
the color of the discipline; doctors' hoods are scarlet, lined with the
In France the five major universities wear the same robe for each
degree. The hood is a cape trimmed with a white fur—one row of fur for
bachelors, two for masters, three for doctors. The color of the robes
themselves are orange for Letters, purple for Science, red for Law,
and crimson for Medicine.
Many other European universities wear the standard black gown, although
the caps may vary considerably. The hood color of the University of
Berlin is purple, of Heidelberg red, of Zurich blue with a white cross,
and of Prague red and white.
THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY MACE carried in the Columbia ceremonies was given
to the University by the late Judge John Munro Woolsey, LL.B '01,
LL.-D.'29. It is of Sheffield plate, topped with a king's crown over a
design of acanthus leaves. The mace was the symbol of authority in British
Degrees are conferred by the deans of the schools whose founding dates
determine the order of priority, undergraduate schools the oldest first,
graduate and professional schools the most recent first.
Source: Columbia University COMMENCEMENT Program,
May 17, 1995
241st Academic Year
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