A Brief History of the College of Arts and Science

The history of the College of Arts and Science begins with the founding of the University by a number of prominent New Yorkers, led by Albert Gallatin, a member of Jefferson’s cabinet. Unlike other institutions at the time, it was to be nonsectarian and to produce a different sort of elite citizen, not born to privilege but set apart for leadership by talent and effort. To that end, it provided a more practical education, what the 19th century called “Useful Knowledge.”

Thus, in addition to offering the standard classical curriculum, early NYU was also a center for science. John W. Draper invented modern photography, and the American Chemical Society was founded here.

In the arts and culture, too, it can be argued that the College not only participated in but also generated much of the creative energy that has characterized Greenwich Village. The original University Building housed ateliers that were the forerunners of the current downtown art scene. And although Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was turned down for a teaching post, literature thrived, with University Building even featured in an 1861 novel by Theodore Winthrop.

Finally, this neighborhood and this institution have had a long tradition of social and political activism—from the Stonecutters Riot over the construction of the University’s first building in 1834 to the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, a major event in U.S. labor history that took place in what is now the Brown Building.

From its earliest days, then, the College on Washington Square has been at the cutting edge of intellectual, cultural, and social developments. In 1895, however, NYU’s great chancellor, Henry McCracken, decided to reserve Washington Square for the professional schools, which had prolifer- ated under his leadership, and to move University College to a beautiful campus in the Bronx—University Heights—designed by Stanford White.

The College’s move to the Heights reflected McCracken’s “Ivy” aspirations for the school and his successful effort to raise quality by attracting the best students nationally. Also relevant was the ascendant, non-urban collegiate ideal of a residential community, with fine teaching, extracurricular activities, fraternities, and intercollegiate athletics.

A few years later, an undergraduate presence was restored downtown with the opening of a Collegiate Division (1903), soon to become Washington Square College (1913). This school had a more diverse student body, opening its doors to women, recent immigrants, commuters, and professional students.

For over 60 years, undergraduate liberal arts education at NYU took place in two locations—University College (and the Engineering School) at the Heights and the College on Washington Square, both offering excellent, but different, educational and social experiences. In the 1970s, the College underwent yet another major transformation. In response to financial pressures, the Heights campus was closed in 1973, and University College merged with Washington Square College. The new institution, which is now known simply as the College of Arts and Science, is the beneficiary of both traditions—the Heights’ residential and collegiate culture and the Square’s progressive urban focus. At that time, a decision was also made to build aggressively for quality—to recruit the very best faculty and students, to update and expand the physical plant, and to create distinguished programs both here and abroad.

In recent years, the College has become recognized as a national leader for its efforts to reinvent a liberal arts education for the 21st century. With a challenging liberal arts foundation, the College Core Curriculum, at the center of the under-graduate experience, the College emphasizes student inquiry and research, offers unique opportunities for international and pre-professional study, and makes use of the city as a site for learning and service. A liberal arts education thus reconceived is not only personally enriching but also eminently practical in developing the skills and perspectives essential to assume a leadership role in the 21st century. As the new millennium proceeds, the College continues to build on its founders’ goal of providing “Useful Knowledge.”