Commencement History

In 2023, New York University celebrates its 190th Commencement Exercises. Since the University’s first graduation exercises in 1833, Commencement has grown from three students to over 18,000 each year.

Commencement exercises have been held at University Heights (NYU's Bronx campus that operated from 1894-1973), landmark New York institutions including Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in Washington Square Park from 1976 to 2007.

In 2008, as Washington Square Park began a multiyear renovation, the University held its Commencement exercises at another fabled location and celebrated New York site — Yankee Stadium. NYU is proud to have held the first and only commencement in “The House That Ruth Built” and, as of 2009, in the current Yankee Stadium.

Attendees seated at NYU's Commencement circa 1920.

NYU's Commencement Exercises at the University Heights campus, circa 1920.

Academic Regalia

The caps, gowns, and hoods worn at Commencement are patterned after the attire of monks and students in the Middle Ages.

Those who have earned the bachelor’s degree wear a gown with semi-stiff yoke, long pleated front, and intricate shirring across the shoulders and back; the gown is also distinguished by straightbottomed sleeves. The holders of the master’s degree wear a similar gown, but the sleeve is rectangular and closed at the end. Bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients wear the traditional square mortarboard with an NYU violet tassel. University Honors Scholars wear a distinctive gold tassel adorned with the New York University Honors Scholar emblem in cloisonné.

Those possessing the doctoral degree wear gowns having broad velvet panels down the front. This velvet trimming may be either black or the color of the field of learning represented by the degree. Displayed on both panels is the New York University torch emblem, a symbolic reminder of the University’s founding in 1831 and its long, prestigious history. Three velvet bars are worn on the full, round, open sleeves of doctoral gowns. In addition, recipients of the doctoral degree wear an octagonal cap, or tam, of black velvet with a gold tassel.

Much of the color and meaning of the attire is found in the master's and doctoral hoods. These are lined with silk in the color(s) of the institution conferring the degree and have a velvet border in the color signifying the field of learning (see list below). In the case of the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree, the dark blue color represents the mastery of the discipline of learning 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.

The Ceremony of the Torch

The silver torch, designed by Tiffany & Company, was given to the University in 1911 by Helen Miller Gould. The torch symbolizes "academic purpose and authority.” It has become a tradition for a senior member of the faculty to carry the torch in the Commencement procession. The first passing of the torch to the youngest graduate took place in 1938. The practice prevailed until the Commencement of 1944 when the torch was passed to a returning veteran of World War II. The ceremony was abandoned as of the Commencement of 1953 and was reinstated nine years later.