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A Brief History of New York University

Founded in 1831 by a farsighted group of prominent New Yorkers, the “University of the City of New-York” (as NYU was originally known) was envisioned from the start as something new: an academic institution metropolitan in character, democratic in spirit, and responsive to the demands of a bustling commercial culture.

The group of founders—which included former Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin—envisioned a non-denominational institution that would be “a social investment and a direct response to the needs of the rising mercantile classes in New York,” intended both for those students “who devote themselves to scientific or literary pursuits,” and for those preparing for “the learned professions, commerce, or the mechanical and useful arts.”

In October 1832, the first classes began in rented quarters located downtown near City Hall, in contemporary subjects such as architecture, civil engineering, astronomy, chemistry, sculpture, painting, English and modern languages, as well as classical Greek and Latin.

After a search for a permanent home, the University Council purchased the northeast block of Washington Square East for $40,000, and a handsome Gothic building was built there in 1835. The University Building, as it was known, offered an urbane mix of academic spaces on its lower floors and rental apartments above—rooms and studios whose extraordinary roster of tenants included the artist Winslow Homer, the inventors Samuel F.B. Morse and Samuel Colt (who perfected the electric telegraph and revolver there, respectively), and the architects A.J. Davis and Richard Morris Hunt.

Throughout the 19th century, the University suffered from financial problems and an undergraduate enrollment that never exceeded 150 students. However, though the undergraduate program struggled to fulfill the vision of its founders, NYU’s professional and graduate programs—in law (1835), medicine (1841), dentistry (1865), arts and sciences (1886), and education (1890)—were a success from the start, contributing to New York’s stunning commercial rise and serving as an engine of upward mobility for thousands of native-born and immigrant New Yorkers.

In the late 19th century, under the leadership of Chancellor Henry Mitchell MacCracken, the university advanced significantly, drawing together its far-flung schools under central control and attracting a more business-like Board of Trustees and donors. In what he called a “second founding,” MacCracken moved the undergraduate schools of arts and science and engineering to an entirely new campus in the Bronx, on a bluff overlooking Manhattan—a stunning second home for what was now known by a new name: New York University.

Having moved nearly all of its undergraduates to the new Bronx campus, NYU turned Washington Square into a bustling center for graduate and professional training—including one of the country’s first university-affiliated business schools (1900)—to serve what had become the undisputed commercial capital of America and the second-largest city in the world.

Then, in 1914, NYU made the decision to establish an additional undergraduate program downtown that would serve commuter students. Called Washington Square College, it offered an education to nearly all qualified students, regardless of background. With students who were “famished…for knowledge, any kind of knowledge,” and a young and creative faculty, Washington Square College was, in one professor’s later words, “the most exciting venture in American education that I had ever heard of.”

As enrollments exploded—from 500 students in 1919 to more than 7,000 by 1929—NYU scrambled to hire instructors. Among them was a young writer named Thomas Wolfe, who, while working on his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel, taught English from 1924 to 1930. There is “no other way in which a man coming to this terrific city,” he wrote, “could have had a more…stimulating introduction to its swarming life, than through the corridors and classrooms of Washington Square.”

A number of new graduate schools complemented NYU’s undergraduate growth: the College of Nursing (1932), the Institute of Fine Arts (1933), the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences (1934), and new colleges in continuing education (1934; now the School of Professional Studies) and public service (1938), the latter founded with the encouragement of Mayor La Guardia, himself an NYU alumnus.

NYU had taken on a role like no other private university in American history: a vast educational machine, by which tens of thousands of upwardly mobile New Yorkers—most of them Jewish and Catholic students, from working and middle-class families—could receive college-level training and move into the professions or business. With the largest private enrollment in the country—an astonishing 47,000 students by 1939—NYU had in many ways become the great urban university its founders dreamed of.

The postwar decades were a period of continued growth for NYU, as returning GIs swelled the student body even further; schools of social work (1960), the arts (1965), and individualized study (1972) were added; and plans were made under the leadership of President James Hester to construct the university’s first central library.

By 1973, however, as New York City reeled from years of rising crime and financial troubles and enrollments declined, NYU—which had been running annual deficits since 1964—reluctantly sold its Bronx campus in order to regain solvency.

These difficulties had one very positive result: they provided the opportunity to make a sweeping assessment of NYU’s future. The university had been founded on the two ideals of democratic promise and academic excellence. Since the 1920s, NYU had been fulfilling its democratic promise as no other private university in America; now, emerging from the crises of the ‘70s, it daringly sought to fulfill its founders’ other dream—to transform itself from a respected metropolitan institution to a global seat of learning, in the top tier of world universities.

Throughout the 1970s, NYU gradually regained firm financial footing and began to improve the quality of its faculty, strengthen the curriculum, and establish more stringent admissions requirements. By the early 1980s, with the university’s financial health restored and New York itself emerging at last from decades of social and economic troubles, NYU was poised for a new era of growth.

In 1984, seeking to achieve what its recently appointed president, John Brademas, called “a new position of eminence in American higher education,” NYU undertook one of the first billion-dollar capital campaigns in academic history. Raising two million dollars a week for five hundred weeks, the university reached its goal in only ten years—five years ahead of schedule. President Brademas’s tenure also saw the transformation of Washington Square from a largely commuter campus into a residential one, with extensive construction and renovation of residence halls.

In 1991, NYU’s chancellor, L. Jay Oliva, was tapped as the university’s new president. Under President Oliva—a historian who had spent his entire academic career at NYU—the pace of advancement continued without stop. One of his primary goals was to ensure that the fast-rising stature of the professional schools and arts divisions were matched by an equivalent commitment to the humanities and social science departments—many of which are now ranked among the best in the world.

President Oliva also oversaw a major growth in international studies, drawing record numbers of international students and scholars to NYU and establishing more study-away sites abroad. In 1994, NYU’s global presence gained a powerful centerpiece when Sir Harold Acton bequeathed Villa La Pietra, a 57-acre estate in Florence—at the time the largest single gift made to an American university.

By the end of the millennium, the university had accomplished the near-impossible, dramatically raising the academic rankings, professional stature, and student selectivity of nearly every one of its divisions and departments. As one scholar wrote in 2003, NYU was “the success story in contemporary American higher education.”

Under John Sexton, who became president in 2002 after coming to NYU as a faculty member and then serving as dean of the Law School, NYU’s reach and stature have grown still further, securing its position as one of the world’s premier research universities and a global leader in higher education in the 21st century.

Early in President Sexton’s tenure, the university identified a key strategic priority: the need to expand, strengthen, and energize the arts and sciences, the academic core of the university. From 2004 to 2009, the Partners program—led by a gift of $60 million from six trustees and matched by another $150 million in university funds—resulted in the most rapid expansion of NYU’s faculty in its history. With 125 positions added to the arts and science faculty—an increase of some 20 percent—and significant renovations made to academic facilities, the Partners program had a transformative effect on scores of academic departments.

Another recent academic milestone has been the re-establishment of engineering at NYU for the first time since the sale of the Bronx campus in the 1970s. After beginning a successful affiliation with Brooklyn’s Polytechnic University in 2008, a full merger between the two schools resulted in the creation of the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering in 2014.

The past decade has seen the founding of several prominent institutes and centers as well, including the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (2006), the Center for Urban Science and Progress (2012), and the Global Institute of Public Health (2012).

A signature of President Sexton’s tenure has been the creation of a new model of university: the global network university. Building on the international presence it established in the 20th century, NYU in the 21st century added more global academic centers, with a particular focus on expanding outside of Europe to locations such as Accra and Buenos Aires. Then, in 2010, in what President Sexton termed “an audacious step in higher education,” the university opened NYU Abu Dhabi, the first comprehensive liberal arts campus in the Middle East to be operated by an American research university. A second campus, NYU Shanghai, followed in 2013. Today, with its three campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai and 11 academic centers on six continents, no university has a greater global presence.

In 1831, NYU’s founders chose to create an institution of learning that would be “in and of the city.” In the ensuing years, New York City has become the world’s first truly international city, and NYU has evolved with it. NYU’s more than 44,000 students and 4,500 faculty members are uniquely positioned to shape the 21st century as creative, thoughtful, engaged citizens. They learn and teach at what has become one of the world’s premier institutions of higher learning. They draw from and contribute to the inexhaustibly rich complexity of New York City. And, as they circulate throughout the global network, they build cultural bridges and perspectives that are critical in an ever-more global society. Still vitally “in and of the city,” NYU is now, too, “in and of the world.”

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