The History of Columbia University

Columbia University was founded in 1754 as King's College by royal charter of King George II of England. It is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York and the fifth oldest in the United States.

Controversy preceded the founding of the College, with various groups competing to determine its location and religious affiliation. Advocates of New York City met with success on the first point, while the Anglicans prevailed on the latter. However, all constituencies agreed to commit themselves to principles of religious liberty in establishing the policies of the College.

Columbia's first home: Trinity Church schoolhouse

In July 1754, Samuel Johnson held the first classes in a new schoolhouse adjoining Trinity Church, located on what is now lower Broadway in Manhattan. There were eight students in the class. At King's College, the future leaders of colonial society could receive an education designed to "enlarge the Mind, improve the Understanding, polish the whole Man, and qualify them to support the brightest Characters in all the elevated stations in life." One early manifestation of the institution's lofty goals was the establishment in 1767 of the first American medical school to grant the M.D. degree.

The American Revolution brought the growth of the college to a halt, forcing a suspension of instruction in 1776 that lasted for eight years. However, the institution continued to exert a significant influence on American life through the people associated with it. Among the earliest students and trustees of King's College were John Jay, the first chief justice of the United States; Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury; Gouverneur Morris, the author of the final draft of the U.S. Constitution; and Robert R. Livingston, a member of the five-man committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence.

King's College Becomes Columbia College

The college reopened in 1784 with a new name—Columbia—that embodied the patriotic fervor that had inspired the nation's quest for independence. The revitalized institution was recognizable as the descendant of its colonial ancestor, thanks to its inclination toward Anglicanism and the needs of an urban population, but there were important differences: Columbia College reflected the legacy of the Revolution in the greater economic, denominational, and geographic diversity of its new students and leaders. Cloistered campus life gave way to the more common phenomenon of day students who lived at home or lodged in the city.

Two horses pull a streetcar in front of a four storey Gotchic building

In 1857, the College moved from Park Place, near the present site of city hall, to Forty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue, where it remained for the next forty years. During the last half of the nineteenth century, Columbia rapidly assumed the shape of a modern university. The Columbia School of Law was founded in 1858. The country's first mining school, a precursor of today's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, was established in 1864 and awarded the first Columbia Ph.D. in 1875.

The College Becomes a University

When Seth Low became Columbia's president in 1890, he vigorously promoted the university ideal for the College, placing the fragmented federation of autonomous and competing schools under a central administration that stressed cooperation and shared resources. Barnard College for women had become affiliated with Columbia in 1889; the medical school came under the aegis of the University in 1891, followed by Teachers College in 1893. The development of graduate faculties in political science, philosophy, and pure science established Columbia as one of the nation's earliest centers for graduate education. In 1896, the trustees officially authorized the use of yet another new name, Columbia University, and today the institution is officially known as Columbia University in the City of New York.

Cars drive along 116th Street with Alma Mater in the foreground

Low's greatest accomplishment, however, was moving the university from Forty-ninth Street to the more spacious Morningside Heights campus, designed as an urban academic village by McKim, Mead, and White, the renowned turn-of-the-century architectural firm. Architect Charles Follen McKim provided Columbia with stately buildings patterned after those of the Italian Renaissance. The architectural centerpiece of the campus was, and remains, Low Memorial Library. Built in the Roman classical style, it appears in the New York City Register of Historic Places. The University continued to prosper after its move uptown in 1897.


A crane and construction workers place a roof on Low Library

During the presidency of Nicholas Murray Butler (1902–1945), Columbia emerged as a preeminent national center for educational innovation and scholarly achievement. The School of Journalism was established by bequest of Joseph Pulitzer in 1912. John Erskine taught the first Great Books Honors Seminar at Columbia College in 1919, making the study of original masterworks the foundation of undergraduate education, and in the same year, a course on war and peace studies originated the College's influential Core Curriculum.

A Place of 'Double Magic'

Columbia became, in the words of College alumnus Herman Wouk, a place of "doubled magic," where "the best things of the moment were outside the rectangle of Columbia; the best things of all human history and thought were inside the rectangle."

The study of the sciences flourished along with the liberal arts. Franz Boas founded the modern science of anthropology here in the early decades of the twentieth century, even as Thomas Hunt Morgan set the course for modern genetics. In 1928, Columbia–Presbyterian Medical Center, the first such center to combine teaching, research, and patient care, was officially opened as a joint project between the medical school and The Presbyterian Hospital.

By the late 1930s, a Columbia student could study with the likes of Jacques Barzun, Paul Lazarsfeld, Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling, and I. I. Rabi, to name just a few of the great minds of the Morningside campus. The University's graduates during this time were equally accomplished—for example, two alumni of Columbia's School of Law, Charles Evans Hughes and Harlan Fiske Stone (who was also dean of the School of Law), served successively as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Cranes and scaffolding on Butler Library

Research into the atom by faculty members I. I. Rabi, Enrico Fermi, and Polykarp Kusch brought Columbia's Department of Physics to international prominence in the 1940s. The founding of the School of International Affairs (now the School of International and Public Affairs) in 1946 marked the beginning of intensive growth in international relations as a major scholarly focus of the University. The oral-history movement in the United States was launched at Columbia in 1948.

Steady Expansion Followed by Unrest

Columbia celebrated its bicentennial in 1954 during a period of steady expansion. This growth mandated a major campus building program in the 1960s, and, by the end of the decade, five of the University's schools were housed in new buildings.

It was also in the 1960s that Columbia experienced the most significant crisis in its history. Currents of unrest sweeping the country—among them opposition to the Vietnam War, an increasingly militant civil rights movement, and the ongoing decline of America's inner cities—converged with particular force at Columbia, casting the Morningside campus into the national spotlight. More than 1,000 protesting students occupied five buildings in the last week of April 1968, effectively shutting down the University until they were forcibly removed by the New York City police. Those events led directly to the cancellation of a proposed gym in Morningside Park, the cessation of certain classified research projects on campus, the retirement of President Grayson Kirk, and a downturn in the University's finances and morale. They also led to the creation of the University Senate, in which faculty, students, and alumni acquired a larger voice in University affairs.

Aerial view of Morningside Campus, Columbia University

In recent decades, Columbia's campuses have seen a revival of spirit and energy that have been truly momentous. Under the leadership of President Michael Sovern, the 1980s saw the completion of important new facilities, and the pace intensified after George Rupp became president in 1993. A 650-million-dollar building program begun in 1994 provided the impetus for a wide range of projects, including the complete renovation of Furnald Hall and athletics facilities on campus and at Baker Field, the wiring of the campus for Internet and wireless access, the rebuilding of Dodge Hall for the School of the Arts, the construction of new facilities for the Schools of Law and Business, the renovation of Butler Library, and the creation of the Philip L. Milstein Family College Library.

A Research and Teaching Institution

The University, which is also home to the New York Psychiatric Institute, also continued to develop the Audubon Biotechnology and Research Park, which includes the Mary Woodard Lasker Biomedical Research Building, the Audubon Business Technology Center, Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, and the Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center as well as other institutions of cutting-edge scientific and medical research. As New York City's only university-related research park, it also is contributing to economic growth through the creation of private-sector research collaborations and the generation of new biomedical- related business.

In addition to its New York City campuses, Columbia has two facilities outside of Manhattan. Nevis Laboratories, established in 1947, is Columbia's primary center for the study of high-energy experimental particle and nuclear physics. Located in Irvington, New York, Nevis is situated on a 60-acre estate originally owned by the son of Alexander Hamilton.

The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory was established in 1949 in Palisades, New York, and is a leading research institution focusing on global climate change, earthquakes, volcanoes, nonrenewable resources, and environmental hazards. It examines the planet from its core to its atmosphere, across every continent and every ocean, and has become the backbone of the Columbia Climate School, which opened its first class of students in 2021. 

A student-activities center, Alfred Lerner Hall, opened in 1999 and features the Roone Arledge Auditorium and Cinema. These and other improvements to the University's physical plant provide a visible reminder of the continuing growth and development of Columbia's programs of research and teaching. From its renowned Core Curriculum to the most advanced work now under way in its graduate and professional schools, the University continues to set the highest standard for the creation and dissemination of knowledge, both in the United States and around the world.

'The Quintessential Great Urban University'

On October 3, 2002, Columbia University inaugurated its nineteenth president, Lee C. Bollinger. In his address to the crowd that had gathered in front of Low Library, Bollinger laid out his vision for Columbia as it entered the twenty-first century. He heralded it as “the Quintessential Great Urban University,” an institution of uncommon scholarly excellence that was very much a part of the city, the country, and the world. Heading into the next century, the task would be to strengthen the bonds that tied the university to the City of New York, broaden Columbia’s global reach and outlook, and expand its commitment to diversity. Undergirding all of this would be a pledge to deepen the institution’s engagement with the great problems facing society—what President Bollinger calls he Fourth Purpose of the university—while retaining Columbia’s distinctive academic character.

Columbia University campus in Manhattanville

In the years following the signing of the Community Benefits Agreement in May 2009, the new campus in Manhattanville has taken shape. In 2017, the university opened the first two buildings on the new Manhattanville campus, the Jerome L. Greene Science Center and the Lenfest Center for the Arts. They were followed in 2018 by the Forum, and in January 2022, the Columbia Business School’s new facilities, Henry R. Kravis Hall and David Geffen Hall opened. Central to the master plan for the new campus is the creation of indoor and outdoor spaces that are public, open, and inviting to local residents and blend in seamlessly with the streetscape.