A Brief History of GSAS

Butler library

The prehistory of Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) begins with the founding of King’s College in 1754, located first at Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan and then at Park Place and Church Street, where it stayed for nearly a century. The entering class comprised eight students who followed a curriculum principally focused on Latin and Greek. In 1857, Columbia College—as it was renamed following the American Revolution—moved uptown to 49th Street and Madison Avenue. Concurrently, the Board of Trustees began to offer a curriculum leading to a master’s degree in letters, science, or jurisprudence, presaging the rapid diversification of Columbia’s offerings that would soon follow.

Expansion beyond undergraduate education accelerated with the founding of the School of Law (1858), the School of Mines (1864)—which furnished Columbia with its first student to earn a PhD—and the Faculty of Political Science (1880). The latter would become one of the foundational elements of GSAS, along with the Faculty of Philosophy (1890) and the Faculty of Pure Science (1892). By the 1890s, President Seth Low noted that Columbia’s facilities were inadequate for its continuing growth and began looking for a new site for the campus.

After a visit to bucolic Morningside Heights, which a guidebook of the day called “a most beautiful and commanding site,” the Columbia fathers were suitably impressed and signed on immediately, hiring architect Charles McKim to design an urban academic Acropolis on the Hudson. The centerpiece of McKim’s design was Low Memorial Library, a neoclassical building modeled on the Pantheon and the Baths of Caracalla and named for Seth Low’s father. (No longer a library, today it is home to a number of administrative offices, including those of GSAS.) To reflect its increasing focus on graduate and professional education, Columbia formally changed its designation from college to university in 1896, and debuted its new campus on the Heights the following year.

From 1902 to 1945, under the leadership of its longest-serving president, Nicholas Murray Butler, PhD 1884, Columbia emerged as a model research university—a company of scholars, thinkers, and investigators working with apprentice graduate students to advance the frontiers of knowledge. From Harold Urey’s discovery of heavy hydrogen to the foundational work that would lead to MRI machines and lasers, from Richard Hofstadter’s theories on political conduct to John Erskine’s influential essay “The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent,” Columbia’s reputation for innovative research and scholarship blossomed in the twentieth century. Notable alumni from this period include US Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, MA ’10; urban planner Robert Moses, PhD ’14; Indian statesman Bhimrao Ambedkar, PhD ’27; anthropologist Margaret Mead, PhD ’29; literary critic Lionel Trilling, PhD ’38; author and scientist Isaac Asimov, PhD ’48; writer William Goldman, MA ’56; women’s history pioneer Gerda Lerner, PhD ’66; evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, PhD ’67; and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, PhD ’76.

In 1979, the Faculties of Political Science, Philosophy, and Pure Science officially merged as the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The preeminence of graduate studies at Columbia today is reflected in the size and diversity of GSAS, one of the largest private graduate schools in the country. A full-time faculty of approximately eight hundred in twenty-seven Arts and Sciences departments instructs more than 3,400 students in thirty PhD programs and forty-three MA programs. In addition, GSAS confers PhD and MA degrees for thirty-six programs administered by other university schools, such as architecture, business, engineering, journalism, and public health. Today, GSAS is the only school at Columbia that confers the PhD degree.

The university's evolution continues in the twenty-first century. A network of eight global centers, from Paris to Beijing, provides experimental platforms for scholarly interaction between Columbia and diverse world regions. Closer to home, Manhattanville is a seventeen-acre site just north of Morningside Heights that will transform into a vibrant campus containing—among other facilities—a neuroscience research and teaching center. Initiatives like these are based on the understanding that new areas of learning and discovery will continue to arise—a flexibility of thought and planning that describes Columbia’s past as well as its future.