New York University

The History and Development of New York University

A school that is nearly as prestigious as the city it exists in, New York University has become one of the finest and most respected educational institutions in America and even around the world. Students come to NYU from areas across the country and around the globe and have a passion to study at a school located in the most recognizable city in the world. This draw is due to New York University’s rich history and contributions to New York City as a whole, both of which will be discussed throughout this work.

In the 1830s, one could say that New York City was a bustling environment that was witnessing an economic boom which ultimately helped shape the city. This boom was due in large part to the Erie Canal, which was completed on “October 26, 1825 –on budget and at least three years ahead of schedule”.[1] What once took three weeks to move a ton of wheat from Buffalo to New York now took less than eight days and the cost was now cut from one hundred dollars to less than six.[2] The canal now brought a whole new class of people into the city: merchants. Along with the merchants came democratic theorists and clergymen, who, along with the merchants, “turned their intellectual inclinations and financial resources to the task of creating a university”.[3] They pooled their capital to create what is now known as New York University.

At the time, there were already two colleges in New York, Columbia, which was known originally as King’s College and was founded in 1754, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, which was founded in 1807 .[4] Although in 1831, the year NYU was founded, only 710 students were enrolled in college, and of this there was a split in enrollment between the two aforementioned colleges, the population of NYC as a whole more than tripled, going from “around sixty thousand to over two hundred thousand inhabitants” between 1830 and 1831.[5] This massive increase in population would have contributed to more students enrolling in college and this is another reason that it was imperative for another university to be chartered.

Originally known as  The University of the City of New-York, in 1831, a small group of affluent merchants wanted to create a college that “corresponded with the spirit and wants of the age and country”.[6] Aside from the merchants, democratic theorists like Albert Gallatin – who served as Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Jefferson and Madison –wanted to create an educational institution that would “make its educational resources available to the sons of immigrants and artisans”.[7] A third class of citizens worked with merchants and citizens like Gallatin to start a new educational venture and this class consisted of men of the cloth. Clerical advocates included James Mathews, John McVickar, James Linor, Jonathan Wainwright, and Samuel Cox, all of whom hoped to create a university that was nondenominational so that the clergymen can “educate their sons in a local setting favorable to their educational goals and social values”.[8] In 1830, leading members of this cause petitioned the government for a charter, accompanied with a description of the intended curriculum, and, without fail, in 1831, the New York State Legislature granted a charter for the “University of the City of New-York” thus allowing the first classes began in October of 1832.

After the charter was granted, the first classes began in October of 1832, in a rented building near City Hall.[9] In this building, which was actually relatively close to Columbia, classes on architecture, engineering, chemistry, sculpting, painting were taught in addition to English and other languages, most notably classical Greek and Latin.[10] While classes were commencing at this rented facility, the University Council, headed by Gallatin, sought a more permanent home. In 1835, the council purchased the northeast block of Washington Square East for $40,000 and constructed a new facility there.[11] To this day, NYU is located in Washington Square and is home to more than just an undergraduate institution, as its founders had promised.

Although there is more than one post-graduate school at New York University, the oldest of them all is their law school, which is currently ranked as the sixth best law school in the country, and will now be discussed within the historical context of the university as a whole.[12] Dated July 6, 1835, Benjamin Butler wrote to the University Council petitioning for the creation of a law school.[13] He writes about the merits of having such a school and how it will contribute to the university as a whole. Within this, the establishment of the school along with the faculty and curriculum is discussed. Again, in accordance with the charter request made in 1830, founding members promised that in due time more schools would be founded within the university, and true to their word, NYU’s School of Law was the first.

Following the success of the law school, subsequent schools also opened; in chronological order they are as follows:  medicine (1841), dentistry (1865), arts and sciences (1886), and education (1890).[14] With the success of these post-graduate schools and the undergraduate institution, NYU saw it fit to expand its campus and purchased land in the Bronx in 1891 and began to transition all undergraduate courses to this campus, now named “The University Heights Campus”, which was finally completed in 1894.[15] The campus in Greenwich Village would be the home to all post-graduate studies. This new campus would not be a permanent fixture at NYU, however.

Ironically, just as the university was founded during an economic boom, it was an economic malaise that nearly closed the doors of the university for good. During 1970 and 1971, “the school’s deficit had reached a record level of $6.7 million”.[16] After raising tuition to $2,700 per year for 1970’s class (which was more than Harvard’s at the time), there seemed to be no end in sight and the university was in a desperate place with the potential of shutting down. Not as many students seemed to come to NYU as did in prior years, which was attributed to New York City’s ever-rising crime rate.[17] Faced with shutting down or cease being a private university and transition to a public school, NYU decided it was necessary to sell the University Heights Campus in the Bronx to offset costs and incurred debt from a poor financial situation. In 1973, NYU sold the University Heights campus to the City University of New York for $61.9 million and with this money, $34 million was used towards endowment and the remainder was used to “pay off debts, reduce spending deficits, and increase its retirement fund”.[18]

In avoiding this crisis, NYU was able to focus all of its resources towards the Washington Square campus in Greenwich Village and returned to the prominence that it had for the majority of its existence. Today, NYU is a renowned educational institution that serves a broad range of interests for people coming from around the world.

When visiting NYU, one will find an area with various eateries and dining establishments within walking distance from the campus. NYU is located in a more quiet area of the city when being compared to areas like Manhattan or Times Square so it is great to walk around and peacefully enjoy the establishments in the vicinity of the school. Literally located right in the middle of NYU is Washington Square Park. Once a sacred burial ground believing to be the resting place of upwards of 20,000 bodies, it is now a park that honors the nation’s first president, George Washington. This park is a must see for visitors who are going to NYU – it literally cannot be missed. Additionally, the university offers free tours and visits of the different schools within NYU. In taking these tours, the history of the school is explained as well as the history of the area. Having taken a tour, it is highly informative and recommended.

The primary sources chosen were difficult to choose because there are so many that could have been incorporated. The handful that is cited herein does not do a justice to the rich history NYU has. Of those that are chosen, the request for the charter and the charter itself show the substantive components of what it actually took to officially establish NYU. These are extremely important and meaningful documents both to the history of the school and the city as a whole. The admissions advertisement is also interesting. This shows what a difference the admissions process is now from when it was advertised in 1832. Today, the process is lengthy and expensive: often requiring at least one standardized test score, GPA transcripts, letters of recommendation and other resume boosters to help facilitate the process. These sources show NYU at its founding really show how the school has progressed to the point it is at today.

Not related to the founding, a final image included is of NYU’s University Heights Campus, which was forced to close due to financial problems during the 1970s. This was by all means a beautiful campus that largely contributed to NYU for nearly eighty years. Today, it is where Bronx Community College is, so although not the home of NYU, the city is still putting the location to good use. Looking at it now, had it been kept open, it is interesting to speculate how NYU would have continued to evolve had it been used more and not subject to closing because of financial strife.

In a broader context, the founding and subsequent history of New York University shows a lot about New York City and the country as a whole. NYU was founded by three fundamentally different classes of citizens: democratic theorists (one of whom was Secretary of the Treasury), merchants who made money from the newly constructed Erie Canal, and clergymen seeking to start a nondenominational university to further the education of those within the community. These classes worked together to achieve a goal that they set forth and it was with this cooperation that NYU was able to be founded. It was not easy and there were many bumps in the road, however, through perseverance and determination, they were able to accomplish their goal. This is symbolic of the concept of the American Dream, where there is endless opportunity to those who are hardworking and have perseverance to never give up on their dreams. Additionally, the ultimate founding of NYU took place during a time that many new immigrants were coming to the city, as seen through the three-fold population increase. These immigrants were not discouraged from pursuing an education, as Albert Gallatin said; he wanted an educational institution that would “make its educational resources available to the sons of immigrants and artisans”. This was not an opportunity open to just the wealthy but rather one open to everyone, providing an equal opportunity to receive education to better their lives. This is another focus of the American Dream – the concept that it is open to everyone and does not discriminate.

Within the context of the city, as the city itself grew so did NYU. New York University added many schools under its name and increased campus size and even added a new campus location. By 1931, not only was it the city’s largest private institution, it was the nation’s largest as well.[19] NYU proved to be an essential part of the city as it grew and adapted to the changes that also took place in the city, both good and bad, and this is seen through the school’s growth as well as its decision to shut down the University Heights Campus, respectively. There are certain elements about New York City that are just special and NYU similarly possesses these elements. Both NYC and NYU are unique, in their founding and evolution as well as the impact they have on culture both within and beyond city limits.

From the unity among classes that desired to create a new institution, the inclusiveness that the founders of the university wanted, the expansion and addition of schools under the university’s name, and the overall contributions NYU has made to society as a whole, it is clear that New York University is indeed as prestigious as the city it exists in.


Following the petition made in 1830, in 1831, the New York State Legislature granted the charter seen here. Of all sections, Section I notes that this is a publicly funded university and Section III notes that there is no religious sect affiliated with the school. This is actually printed quite clearly and not in the illustrious and fancy writing that the other provisions are recorded in. With this, The University of the City of New-York is officially a school.

This is an image of the charter request from members seeking to create the university. In it was discussed how it was intended to be publicly funded through the purchasing of stocks (at $25 per share with a goal of selling 4,000 shares) for a total revenue of $100,000. Additionally, objectives were outlined for the university by Albert Gallatin; these objectives were “to elevate the standard of learning… diffuse knowledge, and to render it more accessible to the community at large”. Additionally, elements to the curriculum are discussed, including departments on teaching the classics of American education and another focusing on studies abroad. It also mentioned further departments were forthcoming, such as a school of medicine and of law.


[1] Ric Burns, New York An Illustrated History, expanded edition (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005),  57

[2] Ibid.

[3] Thomas Frusciano . New York University and the City: An Illustrated History, (Livingston, NJ; Rutgers University Press, 1997),  1

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 4.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] New York University. History Department. A Brief History of New York University. Accessed October 22, 2017.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] US News and World Reports Law School Rankings. Accessed October 22, 2017.

[13] Butler, Benjamin F. 1835. “PLAN FOR THE ORGANIZATION OF A LAW FACULTY AND FOR A SYSTEM OF INSTRUCTION IN LEGAL SCIENCE, IN THE UNIVERSITY OF THE CITY OF NEW-YORK.” The Green Bag An Entertaining Journal Of Law 17, 71. LexisNexis Academic: Law Reviews, EBSCOhost (accessed October 22, 2017)

[14] New York University, History Department. A Brief History of New York University. Accessed October 22, 2017.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Frusciano . New York University and the City: An Illustrated History, (Livingston, NJ; Rutgers University Press),  131

[16] Ibid., 240.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.,  243.

[19] Ibid. Introduction.


Burns, New York An Illustrated History, expanded edition (New York, 2005)

Butler, Benjamin F. 1835. “PLAN FOR THE ORGANIZATION OF A LAW FACULTY AND FOR A SYSTEM OF INSTRUCTION IN LEGAL SCIENCE, IN THE UNIVERSITY OF THE CITY OF        NEW-YORK.” The Green    Bag An Entertaining Journal Of Law 7, 71. LexisNexis Academic: Law Reviews, EBSCOhost (accessed October 22, 2017)

Frusciano . New York University and the City: An Illustrated History, (Livingston, NJ; Rutgers University Press)

Frusciano . New York University and the City: An Illustrated History, (Livingston, NJ; Rutgers University Press): Images (University Charter, Charter Request to Legislature,                  Admissions Requirements, Old Bronx Campus)

New York University, History Department. A Brief History of New York University. handbook/the-university/history-and-traditions-of-new-york-university/a-brief-history-of-new-york- university.html

US News and World Reports Law School Rankings.