History of NYU
In 1831, Albert Gallatin, the distinguished statesman who served as secretary of the treasury under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, led NYU's founding council. He would later describe his vision for the institution in a letter to a friend:
My wish was to devote what may remain of life to the establishment, in this immense and fast-growing city, of a general system of rational and practical education fitted for all and...opened to all.
At that time, most students in American colleges and universities were members of the privileged classes. Gallatin and the founding council believed that an educated general populace was crucial to the preservation of democratic institutions. They envisioned a new kind of university: non-denominational and open to all, regardless of national origin, religious beliefs, or social background; with a varied, modern curriculum appropriate for both students "who devote themselves to scientific or literary pursuits," and those preparing for "the learned professions, commerce, or the mechanical and useful arts."
Throughout its 188 years, the University has evolved alongside a changing world and major turning points in history:
The College of Arts and Science holds its first classes near City Hall in Lower Manhattan. Three years later, the University moved to Washington Square, which until recently had been bordered by farmland.
Samuel F. B. Morse is named professor of sculpture and painting. Morse consulted NYU chemistry professor Leonard Gale while perfecting his invention of the telegraph in the old University Building, initiating NYU’s long tradition of innovation.
The School of Law is established that same year. A half century later, it became one of the first law schools in the nation to admit women.
The Graduate School of Arts and Science is founded. Twenty years earlier, NYU had become one of the first institutions in the country to award a doctoral degree for successful completion of academic work – until that time, advanced degrees in the US were typically honorary.
NYU’s graduate programs were highly successful in the 19th century, 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.
Women are formally admitted to the Graduate School of Arts and Science.
The University moves its undergraduate college to a spacious campus in the Bronx. Nicknamed “the Heights,” the campus was designed by Stanford White, renowned architect of several New York City landmarks, including the Washington Square Arch.
Back at Washington Square, the University Building is demolished and construction begins on the Main Building, later renamed the Silver Center.
NYU establishes Washington Square College, an additional undergraduate program downtown. It offers an education to nearly all qualified students, regardless of background, including women, commuters, recent immigrants, and professional students.
Of the students who would attend, English professor Oscar Cargill stated, "[They were] famished…for knowledge, any kind of knowledge." Combined with a young and creative faculty, Washington Square College was, in history professor Alexander Baltzly's later words, "the most exciting venture in American education that I had ever heard of."
The Institute of Fine Arts is founded. In 1958, it relocated to a historic mansion on the Upper East Side, in the heart of New York’s “Museum Mile.”
Thomas Wolfe, instructor of English, publishes Look Homeward, Angel while teaching at NYU. Of NYU students, he wrote,
…many are making sacrifices of a very considerable nature in order to get an education. They are, accordingly, not at all the conventional types of college student.
The School of Professional Studies is founded. With nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce unemployed during the Great Depression, it established training programs for social workers and a reading clinic to improve the literary skills of job seekers.
Also in 1934, the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences is founded. Faculty members from the Institute would go on to win the Abel Prize four times in ten years—more than any other institution.
NYU's enrollment reaches an astonishing 47,000 students, the largest private enrollment in the country. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers from working and middle-class families, many of them children of immigrants, found in NYU an engine of upward mobility. The University had in many ways become the great urban university its founders dreamed of.
NYU assumes an important role in military training, partnering with the Army and the Navy to train recruits in engineering, meteorology, medicine, dentistry, nursing, and foreign languages. By the close of the war, NYU had registered and trained more than 29,000 students in its military programs.
As male enrollment dropped during WWII, NYU filled its classrooms with a large number of women, who made up over 50 percent of enrolled students at NYU from 1943 to 1945. In February 1943, the Chance Vought Division of United Aircraft established a scholarship to bring women who had majored in mathematics and physics at the nation's leading colleges to train at NYU's Guggenheim School of Aeronautical Engineering.
I learned how much I didn’t know, and I learned to enjoy the pleasure of asking and trying and testing. Those three years were probably the happiest of my life.
- Ang Lee, on his time at NYU Tisch School of the Arts
Bobst Library opens, giving NYU a central library for the first time in its history. With more than four million volumes, it is the flagship of NYU’s eleven-library system.
Meanwhile, NYU faces decreased enrollment, especially from out of state, due to a highly publicized increase in crime and economic difficulties in New York City. NYU makes a reluctant decision to sell its Bronx campus.
These difficulties have one very positive result: they provide the opportunity to make a sweeping assessment of NYU’s future. Emerging from the crises of the '70s, NYU 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.
NYU School of Medicine professor Alvin Friedman-Kien first identifies a new form of sarcoma in gay men, contributing to the breakthrough in HIV/AIDS identification.
NYU President John Brademas announces one of the first billion-dollar campaigns in the history of higher education – as the New York Times put it, “a brash campaign aimed at moving the school into the nation’s top tier of universities.” The campaign allows NYU to attract top scholars to its faculty and transform Washington Square from a largely commuter campus to a residential one.
L. Jay Oliva is inaugurated as president and continues the advancement of the University. By the end of the millennium, NYU had substantially raised the academic rankings, professional stature, and student selectivity of its divisions and departments. As one scholar wrote in 2003, “NYU is the success story in contemporary American higher education.
The September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center impact NYU profoundly. The University was located about a mile and a half from Ground Zero, with over 2,000 students living in residence halls in Lower Manhattan, some within sight of the Twin Towers.
President John Sexton announces the Partners Plan – an ambitious fundraising campaign that will expand the faculty of arts and science by 20 percent within five years, continuing to raise the University’s academic stature.
NYU merges with Brooklyn’s Polytechnic University to create the Tandon School of Engineering, restoring the discipline of engineering to NYU for the first time in forty years. NYU Tandon significantly expands the University’s presence in Brooklyn, a hub for media, technology, and the arts.
The School of Global Public Health is founded. It features a cross-continental master’s degree, earned at three NYU global sites over the course of a year.
Andrew Hamilton is inaugurated as NYU’s 16th president. His priorities for the University include strengthening affordability, diversity, and sustainability.
The School of Medicine announces full-tuition scholarships for all current and future students. It is the only top 10-ranked medical school in the nation to do so.
Carrying Our Ideals into the Future
In many ways, Albert Gallatin would scarcely recognize NYU today. From an initial student body of 158, enrollment has grown to more than 50,000 students at three degree-granting campuses in New York City, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai, and at study away sites on six continents. Today, students come from every state in the union and from 133 foreign countries.
Though the University now operates on a larger scale, our commitment to our founding ideals of diversity and innovation has not wavered.
A 2017 study by the New York Times ranked NYU No. 4 among top colleges enrolling the highest percentage of low- and middle-income students. NYU also ranked No. 8 on the economic mobility index, which measures access and outcomes for students, including the likelihood of moving up two or more income levels.
The Class of 2022 is both the most selective and the most diverse in history, with the percentage of African American students in the class doubling and the percentage of Latinx students increasing by 46 percent over the past two years.
And NYU’s long tradition of innovation is stronger than ever. The University has seen explosive growth in grant funding for its research – a more than 120% increase since 2010. NYU boasts five entrepreneurship spaces and seven start-up incubators. Across the globe and spanning countless academic fields, NYU faculty and students are advancing knowledge in the service of a better world.
More Historical Images
University Building - 1891
The University Building at Washington Square in 1891. Tenants included the artist Winslow Homer and the inventors Samuel F.B. Morse and Samuel Colt.Photo credit: Library of Congress
In the late 19th century, Chancellor Henry Mitchell MacCracken moved most undergraduate schools to a new campus in the Bronx.Photo credit: New York Public Library
NYU University Heights Campus Illustration
The University Heights campus was sold in the the 1960s due to declining enrollmentPhoto credit: New York Public Library
Washington Square with NYU in the background
Washington Square with NYU in the background.Photo credit: New York Public Library
NYU Law Library in 1887
Gould Memorial Library, University Heights CampusPhoto credit: Library of Congress
Tennis Courts, NYU University Heights CampusPhoto credit: Library of Congress
Industrial training for war work offered to women by New York University under United States Government sponsorship.Photo credit: Library of Congress