In the early part of the 19th century, a group of prominent New Yorkers, among whom were
several individuals who would become founders of New York University, formed the New York
Athenaeum, a society devoted to the discussion and advancement of science, art, and literature. The concept of higher education, grounded in practical and utilitarian concerns rather than solely on scientific or professional considerations, was a considered topic.
In December 1829, a group of nine men, including representatives of the clergy, the commercial occupations, law, and medicine met at the home of Reverend James Mathews to explore the possibility of establishing an institution of higher education that would operate according to their collective vision. This gathering and several subsequent others resulted in the call for a public meeting to lay the groundwork for the establishment of the University of the City of New-York.
During the public meeting, which took place at the New-York Historical Society in January
1830, Jonathan Wainwright of Grace Episcopal Church echoed the general thinking of the group, now appropriately called the University’s founders. Complementing the Jacksonian politics of the era, he proposed a curriculum based on “useful instruction” for the mercantile class. Albert Gallatin, resident of New York City and former Secretary of the Treasury, shared the vision of the formulation of a non-denominational college which would “enlarge the opportunities of education for those qualified and inclined.” He described his motivation in a letter to a friend: “It appeared to me impossible to preserve our democratic institutions and the right of universal suffrage unless we could raise the standard of general education and the mind of the laboring classes nearer to a level with those born under more favorable circumstances.”
Not only would traditional courses in law, medicine, and theology be offered, but also courses,
which taught the skills that would enable students to become “merchants, mechanics, farmers, manufacturers, architects, and civil engineers.” The curriculum would include modern languages in addition to Latin and Greek, history, natural science, philosophy, and economics. Financing was arranged through the sale of stock at $25 per share. Shareholders, with one vote for each $100 subscribed, chose the 32 members of the first Council. Albert Gallatin was elected President of the Council and Reverend James Mathews became the first Chancellor. Shortly thereafter, during a convention of national leaders in the chamber of the Common Council at City Hall, Gallatin outlined his educational philosophy and suggested establishing an English college, in addition to the classical curriculum, where the study of ancient languages would not be required.
In 1830, the New York State Legislature received a petition to charter the University of the City of New-York which included a plan for two departments of instruction: “one for elementary and practical education in the classics, in English and American literature, and the sciences, and one partaking of the character of a university as on the continent of Europe,” as in the German universities and the newly founded University of London. Medicine, law, and teacher instruction were to follow. On April 18, 1831 the New York State Legislature accordingly chartered the University of the City of New-York.
The University Council rented lecture rooms in Clinton Hall, a new four-story building located
downtown near the City Hall, and instruction began in the fall of 1832. Since Clinton Hall was
situated in the heart of the bustling, noisy commercial district, the University Council looked
uptown for a permanent and more suitably academic environment. For $40,000, the Council
purchased the northeast block of Washington Square East and issued a report calling for a
“commodious but plain” building to be erected.
Through the influence of Chancellor Mathews, the architectural firm of Town, Davis, and Dakin
was chosen to design the building. In spite of resistance within the University, Mathews chose an elaborate gothic design from among the alternatives offered by the designers, ignoring the earlier directive for simplicity. In the summer of 1833, workmen laid the cornerstone of what came to be known as the old University Building. The interior contained a great gothic chapel, as well as several classrooms, lecture spaces, and living quarters. In 1835, with the upper two stories yet unfinished, the University community eagerly took possession of its new and permanent home, which was formally dedicated on May 20, 1837.
Undergraduate enrollment hovered at 150 students for most of the 19th century; however, the Schools of Law (1835), Medicine (1841) and College of Dentistry (1865) grew rapidly.
Development of New York University into a modern university system dates from the late 19th century, at which time it acquired an educational scholar as Chancellor, Henry Mitchell MacCracken. The Washington Square campus added the Graduate School of Arts and Science (1886), the School of Pedagogy (1890), now the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and the School of Commerce (1900), now the Leonard N. Stern School of Business. MacCracken brought the independent proprietary schools of law, medicine, and dentistry under central administrative control. In 1894, after discarding a plan for merging with Columbia College, he moved the undergraduate schools of arts and science and engineering further north from the urban crowding of Bohemian-bordered Greenwich Village to University Heights in the Bronx. The stimulus of Columbia University’s growing fame and prosperity, and of scholarly innovations in graduate study at Johns Hopkins, helped the University at this juncture to experience real growth.
The Council amended its charter in 1893, distancing the University from close political and
clerical ties, and began to expand the educational mission, to seek gifts of funds, and to foster
competition in intercollegiate athletics. A research-focused undergraduate and engineering
curriculum was centered at the Bronx campus. The old University Building was replaced by the larger, more space-efficient Main Building in 1895 to accommodate growth at Washington
Square. The medical school merged with Bellevue Medical College in the 1890s and thus became allied to New York City’s great public hospital, lineal descendent of the 1736 colonial almshouse hospital. Bellevue and the University Medical Center then developed into a unified teaching hospital and research center.
In the late 19th century, the University began to attract a more business-like Board of Trustees and interested donors such as industrialist/financier Jay Gould and his family, and began in 1887 to admit women and African Americans into what formerly comprised a mainly white male student body. The small, classical University of the City of New-York became New York University in 1896, and began to fulfill its mission of educative partnership with New York City. The University’s urban milieu fostered a dynamic tension between competing claims of liberal and professional education, a dominant theme in the development of higher education in the United States. New York City’s population grew by 1.3 million between 1900 and 1910, with Eastern European Jews accounting for about half that number. Households of mixed German-Irish immigrants in the five boroughs of New York soon outnumbered those of third-generation Americans.
By the end of World War I, the University had established an additional arts and science division in Greenwich Village in the form of Washington Square College (1914) and had established the Graduate School of Business (1916), now the Leonard N. Stern School of Business, Graduate Division in the financial district. High professional enrollments of commuting students at Washington Square coexisted with the smaller University Heights residential colleges for decades. The past 65 years have seen the founding or expansion of the Institute of Fine Arts (1933), the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, formerly the School of Continuing Education (1934), the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences (1934), the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, formerly the Graduate School of Public Administration (1938), the Post-Graduate Medical School (1948), the Silver School of Social Work, formerly the School of Social Work (1960), the Tisch School of the Arts, formerly the School of the Arts (1965), the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, formerly the University Without Walls (1972), and the College of Nursing (2005), formerly a division within the Steinhardt School. A grant-funded self-study in 1956 laid out the proposed restructuring of post-war educational goals and policies, including the addition of the post of president to the administrative chain to better facilitate external relations such as fundraising and government relations.
The University underwent financial difficulties in the late 1960s, from which ensued the sale of
the University Heights campus in 1972. At the same time, University College (1832) and
Washington Square College (1914) – now the College of Arts and Science – merged at the
Square, and the School of Engineering and Science moved to Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute in
downtown Brooklyn. These difficulties had one major, very positive result: they provided then-
President James Hester and University officials with the opportunity to make a sweeping
assessment of the future of NYU. During Hester’s tenure (1962-1975), NYU began to improve
the quality of its faculty, strengthened curriculum, and established more stringent admissions
requirements. It was at this juncture that NYU came to conceive itself as a specifically urban
In the late 1970s, President John Sawhill, who succeeded James Hester, put the University on a firm financial footing and positioned NYU for the next stage in its development. The movement to advance the level of scholarship at NYU gained momentum with the appointment of John Brademas in 1981. Dr. Brademas had come to NYU after a distinguished 22-year career in the U.S. Congress. Under his leadership, the University began to undergo a renaissance at every level, and nowhere is this more clearly reflected than in the construction and renovation programs of the 1980s, among the most extensive ever undertaken by an urban university. The building of residence halls, which continued under President Oliva, resulted in the transformation of Washington Square into a residential campus; at the same time, the building and renovating in the 1980s of facilities that support academic programs has been integral to the continued high caliber of those programs. NYU emerged during Dr. Brademas’ tenure as an institution of national reputation.
The University’s stature as a research institution of the first order was achieved under the
leadership of President L. Jay Oliva, who served from 1991 to 2002. Dr. Oliva held a succession of high academic and administrative posts, including that of Chancellor, before becoming the first member of the faculty to be elected president. His leadership was crucial to the long-term growth and development of New York University, and his administration was marked by a series of important advances. These included the successful effort to build a “campus in the city”; major growth in international studies, drawing record numbers of international students and scholars to NYU and establishing more study centers abroad; and strong support for the research work of the faculty while maintaining a high level of classroom instruction. Under President Oliva the University also saw the continuing consolidation of its programs at Washington Square, represented by the relocation of the Graduate Division of the Stern School of Business to the Square in 1992.
NYU’s current president, John Sexton, also is the Benjamin Butler Professor of Law and NYU
Law School’s Dean Emeritus, having served as dean for 14 years. He joined the Law School’s
faculty in 1981, was named the School’s dean in 1988, and was designated the University’s
president in 2001.
President Sexton, at his installation on September 26, 2002, issued what he saw as the principal challenge of his presidency: “to dare to use the gifts we have to create the category change we need: a transformation in the years ahead from a leading university to one that will be among a handful of ‘leadership universities,’ those few that execute their core mission with such manifest excellence that they become the models others emulate. Our purpose, in short, is to create at NYU one of the first exemplars of what universities will be in this new century.”
Toward that end, the president is leading an intensive effort over the next five years, through the Partners program, to expand, strengthen and further energize the arts and sciences, the academic core of the University. The cornerstone of a larger $2.5 billion capital campaign, the Partners program is led by a gift of $60 million from six trustees, and matched by another $150 million in University funds.
Between the start of the 2004-2005 academic year and the end of the 2009-10 academic year, the University will expand arts and science faculty by some 20 percent, or 125 positions, the most rapid expansion of its faculty in NYU’s history.
The Story of New York University is intertwined with the growth and development of New York
City, and faculty and graduates have provided the city notable leadership in law, medicine,
science, politics, the arts, and in the American imagination. Members of the faculty have
achieved notable success with fellowships and prizes, including Guggenheim and MacArthur
fellowships, Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, and membership in the National Academy of Sciences. In 2006-07, the University enrolled 38,735 students for degrees [19,582 undergraduate and 15,355 graduate plus 3,798 in professional and global programs], and full-time faculty members at Washington Square, mid-Manhattan, and the Schools of Medicine and Dentistry numbered approximately 3,500.
New York University has emerged as a nationally and internationally recognized research
university, yet it has never strayed from its original mission. Indeed, the complexity of being
such a university in an increasingly global city has given the institution a texture and depth
unique in America. The University has sought and continues to seek to merge tasks that
elsewhere in this country are seen as requiring different institutions—research university, liberal arts college, urban comprehensive institution, center for professional education—and to make sure that New York City’s cosmopolitan nature is reflected throughout.
The opportunities and challenges facing New York University at the beginning of the 21st
century are ones it has confronted throughout its history. The purpose of the founders (some of whom were in the world of business—not unlike the Trustees of the contemporary University) was explicitly an urban one. In the spirit of its original mission of providing talented students with an agency for social mobility, and in its expanded role as an internationally important center of research and teaching, the University today offers an excellent academic program; it retains and attracts outstanding faculty; it maintains and constantly enlarges its special relationship to the surrounding city. Clearly New York University was planned from the beginning to be exactly what it has become: “A Private University in the Public Service.”
(Portions of the above brief history adapted from New York University and the City; an
illustrated history by Thomas J. Frusciano and Marilyn H. Pettit, New Brunswick, 1997)