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.

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 outdoors 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.

The Columbia gown is light blue. The doctoral gown has a facing of black velvet, with three black velvet chevrons on each sleeve. Columbia crowns are embroidered at chest height. People with earned doctoral degrees wear a hood with the color of the velvet trim representing the degree earned. In the case of Ph.D., the dark blue color is used to represent the mastery and scholarship in any field that is attested to by the awarding of this degree and is not intended to represent the field of philosophy. Doctoral degree holders wear an eight-cornered velvet tam with a gold tassel.

Masters’ and bachelors’ gowns have the Columbia crown embroidered on black tabs at chest height. Hoods are not used for graduates at Columbia University. A four-cornered light blue mortarboard with a black tassel is worn. Masters’ robes are differentiated from bachelors’ robes by an oblong sleeve open at the wrist. Teachers College and Barnard College follow Columbia University traditions.

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:

Brown: architecture and the fine arts
White: arts and letters
Light brown: business
Lilac: dentistry
Light blue: education
Orange: engineering
Peacock blue: international and public affairs
Cardinal: journalism
Purple: law
Lemon yellow: library service
Green: medicine
Pink: music
Apricot: nursing
Olive: pharmacy
Dark blue: philosophy
Teal: physical therapy
Salmon pink: public health
Golden yellow: science
Citron yellow: social work
Scarlet: theology

The Eighteenth-Century Mace carried in the Columbia ceremonies was given to the University by the late Judge John Munro Woolsey, LL.B. 1901, LL.D. 1929. 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 courts.


University Chronology

1754 Charter of King’s College, October 31

1767 School of Medicine founded (merged with College of Physicians and Surgeons,1813; reaffiliated with Columbia, 1860; merged fully, 1891; Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons since 2017)

1784 Columbia College established under New York State Legislature

1787 Columbia College received Charter from the state of New York restoring corporate rights and property

1814 Grant of present site of Rockefeller Center, then a botanical garden, to Columbia College

1857 Removal of the College to 49th Street

1858 School of Law established

1864 School of Mines established (The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science since 1997)

1880 School (later Faculty) of Political Science established

1890 Faculty of Philosophy established

1892 Faculty of Pure Science established

1896 School of Architecture established (School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation since 1986)

1897 University moved to Morningside Heights

1898 Teachers College (1889) included within the University system

1900 Barnard College (1889) included within the University system

1900 Summer Session established

1904 College of Pharmacy (1829; later College of Pharmaceutical Sciences) included within the University system until 1976

1904 Extension teaching established

1912 University title ratified (corporate name changed from Columbia College to Columbia University)

1912 School of Journalism (graduate since 1935) established

1916 School of Business (graduate since 1949) established

1917 School of Dental and Oral Surgery established (College of Dental Medicine since 2006)

1921 Columbia Medical School and Presbyterian Hospital formally merge (Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center opens, 1928)

1922 Institute of Public Health established (Mailman School of Public Health since 1998)

1924 Affiliation with New York State Psychiatric Institute established

1926 School of Library Service (1887; graduate since 1948) included within the University system until 1992

1928 Affiliation with Union Theological Seminary established

1934 Nevis Estate, Irvington, New York, donated; became Nevis (physics) Laboratories in 1947

1937 School of Nursing (1892) of Presbyterian Hospital included within the University system (has been Faculty of Nursing since 2000)

1940 New York School of Social Work (1898; now Columbia University School of Social Work) included within the University system (incorporated, 1959)

1946 School of International Affairs established (School of International and Public Affairs since 1981)

1947 School of General Studies established

1948 Schools of Dramatic Arts and Painting and Sculpture established (Program in the Arts, 1958; School of the Arts since 1965)

1949 Lamont Observatory established, Palisades, New York; now Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

1953 Joint degree program established with the Jewish Theological Seminary

1979 Graduate School of Arts and Sciences established (Faculties of Political Science, Philosophy, and Pure Science unified)

1983 Women admitted to Columbia College

1989 Joint degree program established with The Juilliard School

1991 Faculty of Arts and Sciences established

2000 Faculty of Health Sciences established

2002 School of Continuing Education established (School of Professional Studies since 2015)