Commencement traditions, explained

Penn Today dives into some of the unique sights and sounds that help commemorate the joyous occasion.

A Penn Commencement in 1953.
Penn’s 1953 Commencement ceremony, held at the Quadrangle Dormitories. (Image: Mike Pearlman/University of Pennsylvania Archives)

Commencement brings together thousands on campus to celebrate Penn’s newest graduating class, their accomplishments, and promise for their future. Many traditions—big and small—that take place have been set in stone for years, some even dating back to Penn’s very first Commencement in 1757. Penn Today takes a closer look into some of the rituals that help commemorate the joyous occasion.


Adopted at Penn as early as 1759 from England’s style of academic dress, the institution has regularized the wearing of regalia—gowns, hoods, and caps—of students, faculty, and trustees at Commencement, with the specifics being determined in 1895 and 1896 as part of the American Academic Costume Code. Today, gowns vary according to the highest degree awarded to the wearer: Those earning a bachelor’s degree wear gowns with pointed sleeves; those earning a master’s degree wear gowns with oblong sleeves; and those earning a doctoral degree wear more elaborate gowns with velvet (in a color distinctive to a field of study) in the front and along the sleeves, which are bell-shaped. Those with a Penn doctorate may wear red and blue gowns.

A historical Penn graduation procession.
The Class of 1901 Commencement procession on June 12, 1901. (Image: William H. Rau/Courtesy of University Archives)

Historically, hoods were believed to be worn over the head to keep warm. They’ve remained an important decorative piece of the academic costume, with the silk lining of the hood representing the University’s colors, which were established by the University in the early 1870s (at Penn, the hoods are lined in red with a blue chevron). The binding or edging of the hood is velvet, with widths of 2 inches, 3 inches, or 5 inches for the bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees, respectively. The color of the border indicates the field of study to which the degree pertains. The colors signifying degrees granted by Penn include white for arts and letters (B.A., M.A.), golden yellow for science (B.S., M.S.), mustard for business administration, apricot for nursing, green for medicine, purple for law, brown for fine arts (including design), lilac for dental medicine, gray for veterinary medicine, light blue for education, citron for social work, and dark blue for philosophy (Ph.D).

The mortarboard cap is standard, though soft square-topped caps are permissible. In more recent years, it has become popular for students to decorate their caps with meaningful words or pictures, though this practice is discouraged by the University. Recipients of doctorates may wear a gold tassel fastened to the middle point of the top of the cap; all others wear black. At Commencement, graduates wear the tassel on the right side, moving it to the left when their degree is conferred. Faculty participating in academic ceremonies wear the tassel to the left throughout the proceedings.


In the colonial period, Penn’s close ties to the Church of England and to the Penn family proprietors of the province were evident as the provost and high provincial officials conducted Commencement with prayers and sermons from the Anglican church service. Records show that music has been part of the Commencement programming since at least 1760, with an account of that Commencement mentioning:

At the Close of the whole, the Audience was most delightfully entertained with two Anthems sung by several Ladies and Gentlemen, who have not been ashamed to employ some of their Leisure Hours in learning to celebrate their Maker’s Praises with Grace and Elegance.

One of the Students [Francis Hopkinson], who received his Master’s Degree on this Occasion, conducted the Organ with that bold and masterly Hand, for which he is celebrated; and several of the Pieces were also his own Composition. In a Word, the whole gave great Satisfaction to strangers as well as others; and certainly such Improvements in useful Science and polite Arts, in this Part of the World, must give a very high Pleasure to every ingenuous Mind. (Pennsylvania Gazette; May 15, 1760)

Three bagpipers proceeding on Locust Walk.
Bagpipers became popular during the academic procession in the late 1980s, and remain a tradition today. (Image: Eric Sucar)

In the 19th century when Penn held Commencement off site, the institution would hire an orchestra. From 1826 to 1842, famous African American band leader Francis Johnson provided the music to the School of Medicine Commencements, with documentation at Penn Archives showing the actual receipts, in Johnson’s handwriting, for the school. (The Penn Libraries also maintains a collection of Johnson’s sheet music.) Other instances of an orchestra were in 1855, with a program listing “Orchestra Under the Direction of Mr. B. C. Cross” and in 1858, with a program listing “Music by the Germania Orchestra,” and more.

There are also records showing that before 1776, British Army bands, likely made up of about eight to 10 musicians, would play throughout the academic procession before the Commencement ceremony. There is evidence that other processionals included fifes and drums. It wouldn’t be until the late 1980s that documentation would begin to detail traditional bagpipers during the procession, which remain a special tradition today and could have ties, too, to the University’s connection to Scotland.

Other special musical traditions today include the Penn Band participating in the procession, and the singing of the National Anthem by a graduating senior and the singing of “The Red and Blue,” led by the Penn Glee Club, during the ceremony.

Honorary degrees

Honorary degrees are considered important statements of Penn’s values and aspirations. The honorary degree process is managed by the Office of the University Secretary, and all members of the University community are welcome to submit nominations. The University Council Honorary Degrees Committee, with a membership of faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students, is charged with reviewing nominations from the fields of scholarship and academic achievement and advising the Trustee Committee on Honorary Degrees and Awards. The Trustee Committee considers recommendations from the Council Committee as well as other sources and makes final selections. Field of consideration for honorary degree nominations include Arts and Culture; Business; Education; Entertainment and Media; Humanities and Social Sciences; Public Affairs; Scholarship/Academia; and Science, Technology, and Medicine.

Penn’s honorary degree program extends to its very first Commencement in 1757. Always a celebration of student achievement, as Penn evolved as a state school and during political upheaval, honorary degrees began being distributed to heroes of American Independence. Some honorees included Thomas Paine (in 1780), George Washington (in 1783), Charles Thomson (in 1784), and the Marquis de Lafayette (in 1787).

Ken Burns is welcomed to the podium to deliver his address by Interim Provost Wendell Pritchett
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns delivered the Commencement address in 2022, and received an honorary doctor of arts degree. (Image: Scott Spitzer)

Until the very late 1800s, Commencement was mostly orated by graduating students in Latin, Greek, and English. It evolved, largely during the leadership of Provost Charles Custis Harrison, to include the provost (before 1930, the University’s leader was called a provost, not a president) delivering the introductory address and one of the honorary degree recipients delivering a keynote address, similar to the pomp and circumstance that is seen today. More recent Penn honorary degree recipients and Commencement speakers include Lin-Manuel Miranda (in 2016), musical artist and activist Bono (2004), former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1998), and First Lady Barbara Bush (1990). The Penn Archives maintains a collection of Commencement speeches online.

Visit the University’s Commencement page for more information on this year’s celebration. For more information on specific Penn Commencements and Penn history, visit the University Archives & Records Center Commencement Notes and Penn History pages.

A receipt from 1826.
A receipt for Francis Johnson’s musical services at a Medical School Commencement. (Image: Courtesy of University Archives)