The history of New York University begins in the early 19th century. A group of prominent New York City residents from the city's landed class of merchants, bankers, and traders established NYU on April 18, 1831. These New Yorkers believed the city needed a university designed for young men who would be admitted based on merit, not birthright or social class. Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury under Thomas Jefferson, described his motivation in a letter to a friend: "It appeared to me impossible to preserve our democratic institutions and the right of universal suffrage unless we could raise the standard of general education and the mind of the laboring classes nearer to a level with those born under more favorable circumstances." To the school's founders, the classical curriculum offered at American colonial colleges needed to be combined with a more modern and practical education. Educators in Paris, Vienna, and London were beginning to consider a new form of higher learning, where students began to focus not only on the classics and religion, but also modern languages, philosophy, history, political economy, mathematics, and physical science; so students might become merchants, bankers, lawyers, physicians, architects, and engineers. Although the new school would be non-denominational – unlike many American colonial colleges, which at the time offered classical educations centered on theology – the founding of NYU was also a reaction by evangelical Presbyterians to what they perceived as the Episcopalianism of Columbia College.
A three-day-long "literary and scientific convention" held in City Hall in 1830 and attended by over 100 delegates debated the terms of a plan for a university modeled on the University of London, which had been founded in 1826. The trustees of the new institution sought funding from the city and state, but were turned down, and instead raised $100,000 privately to start up the college. The school would make available education to all qualified young men at a reasonable cost, would abandon the exclusive use of "classical" curriculum, and would be financed privately through the sale of stock. Establishing a joint stock company was aimed to prevent any religious group or denomination from dominating the affairs and management of the new institution. Although the university was designed to be open to all men regardless of background, NYU's early classes were composed almost entirely of the sons of wealthy, white, Protestant New York families. Albert Gallatin, who had been selected as the university's first president, resigned in less than a year, disgusted that the curriculum which had been drawn up was not centered on the "rational and practical" learning he thought was essential to a secular education.
On April 21, 1831, the new institution received its charter and was incorporated as the University of the City of New York by the New York State Legislature; older documents often refer to it by that name. In 1832, NYU held its first classes in rented rooms in four-story Clinton Hall, situated near City Hall. In 1835, the School of Law, NYU's first professional school, was established. The university has been popularly known as New York University since its beginning. The school was officially renamed New York University in 1896.
Clinton Hall, situated in New York’s bustling and noisy commercial district, would only be NYU's home for a few years, as administrators searched uptown for a more suitable and permanent academic environment. For example, the administrators looked towards bucolic Greenwich Village. Land was purchased on the east side of Washington Square and, in 1833, construction began on the "Old University Building," a grand, Gothic structure that would house all the school's functions. Two years later, the university community took possession of its permanent home, thus beginning NYU's enduring (and sometimes tumultuous) relationship with the Village.
Whereas NYU had its Washington Square campus since its beginning, the university purchased a campus at University Heights in the Bronx because of overcrowding on the old campus and the desire to follow New York City’s development further uptown. NYU's move to the Bronx occurred in 1894, spearheaded by the efforts of Chancellor Henry Mitchell MacCracken. The University Heights campus was far more spacious than its predecessor was, and housed most of the university’s operations and the undergraduate NYU College of Arts and Science and School of Engineering. The graduate schools of NYU remained at Washington Square when the undergraduate college and the school of engineering moved to the University Heights campus.
In 1914, NYU founded Washington Square College as an undergraduate liberal arts college on the Washington Square campus. This college would become the downtown Arts and Sciences division of NYU. In 1900, NYU founded its undergraduate School of Commerce, Accounts, and Finance, which ultimately became the Leonard N. Stern School of Business, providing professional training in business for young people. The idea of a Long Island campus came about as a result of Truesdel Peck Calkins, former Hempstead superintendent of schools who was then with New York University, who suggested an NYU extension course on the Hofstra property. In 1935, NYU opened the "Nassau College-Hofstra Memorial of New York University at Hempstead, Long Island". This extension would later become a fully independent Hofstra University.
NYU offered women access to graduate studies in 1888, teaching and law in 1890, and undergraduate studies at Washington Square College (then a satellite campus). Important academic discussions took place at NYU around this time, as the American Chemical Society was founded here on April 6, 1876. When women were first admitted to the University Heights College (which would later become the College of Arts and Science) in 1959, many alumni and male undergraduates were unhappy. The student newspaper remarked on the instituting of coeducation by applying part of a quote from Lord Chesterfield on the subject of sex, “the position undignified, the pleasure momentary, and the consequences damnable”. One early attempt to increase the egalitarian nature of the university failed: In 1871, an attempt to offer free tuition to students who were academically qualified backfired. The wealthy, Protestant alumni viewed a free university as a charity institution inappropriate for their own children to attend; thus, the attempt of implementing free tuition was abandoned.
Beginning in the 1920s, NYU attracted the most talented Jewish students, as they were turned away from Ivy League institutions due to “Jewish quotas” that especially targeted first generation Jewish (and other) immigrants living in New York City for exclusion. Despite NYU’s experimentation with these quotas, a good portion of its students was Jewish during this period.
During the 1920s NYU decided to grow by offering admission to almost all applicants. By 1929 it became the largest urban university in the United States with more than 40,000 students. Due in part to the G.I. Bill, enrollment after World War II was greater than 70,000. Most students failed to graduate, however, as they were unable to meet the university's academic standards. The university began a large construction campaign that continued until the early 1970s. In 1962 new president James McNaughton Hester decided to improve NYU's reputation by raising admissions standards, widening student recruiting, and hiring new faculty. The size of the freshman class declined by about one third, but average grades and test scores rose. Most of the new spending occurred on the Washington Square campus, however, causing tensions between it and University Heights. The smaller student body also caused the new buildings to be underused, and forced the university to directly spend donated money on operating costs. Enrollment declined to under 40,000 in 1972 compared to 45,000 a few years earlier.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, financial crisis gripped the New York City government and many of the city’s institutions, including NYU. The university became concerned about urban decay in the Bronx during the mid-1960s, but feared publicizing the issue. A 1969 city government study stated that the neighborhood was still healthy, but expressed concern over the future. Several prominent newspaper articles during the decade that discussed the economic and social decline of the nearby Grand Concourse, however, contributed to widespread panic among both residents and the families of potential students. Enrollment on the University Heights campus rapidly declined; between 1969 and 1971, it lost more than 40% of its students, and the campus accounted for more than 40% of the university's budget deficit. Feeling the pressures of imminent bankruptcy, NYU sold the University Heights campus to the City University of New York (CUNY), which occurred in 1973. NYU's School of Engineering and Science, its students, faculty, and programs, were merged into the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn to form the Polytechnic Institute of New York. The State University of New York (SUNY) was to have purchased the campus for a new engineering school, but CUNY objected to SUNY expanding into the city.
Although University Heights alumni battled to keep the campus, many people suggest the sale was a "blessing in disguise" because the uptown campus was losing money; NYU managing two campuses was impracticable. Chancellor Sidney Borowitz said on the matter, "There was so much pressure from uptown alumni to preserve the Heights that it was only under the threat of possible financial ruin the campus could be sold. With two campuses, NYU could never have prospered as it has." After the sale of the University Heights campus, University College merged with Washington Square College. NYU's most significant loss from this challenging period was the School of Engineering that officially merged with Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn to form the Polytechnic Institute of New York, later to be called Polytechnic University.
Beginning in the mid-1980s, NYU became increasingly popular to students from outside New York City. To meet the demand for housing and classroom space, the university began purchasing old office buildings, hotels, and even nightclubs.[failed verification] In the 1980s, under the leadership of President John Brademas, NYU launched a billion-dollar campaign that was spent almost entirely on updating facilities. In 2003, under the leadership of President John Sexton, the university launched a 2.5-billion dollar campaign for funds to be spent especially on faculty and financial aid resources. . NYU is one of the largest landholders in New York City. However, endowment investments have delivered mediocre returns in recent years.
In the summer of 2008, Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, the second oldest engineering school in the nation, affiliated with NYU giving the university an engineering school for the first time since 1973, when NYU's School of Engineering and Science, its students, faculty, and programs, were merged into the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn to form the Polytechnic Institute of New York (which later became Polytechnic University). On January 1, 2014 it fully merged with NYU and was named the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. In 2015, a $100 million gift from Chandrika and Ranjan Tandon for engineering at NYU resulted in the school changing its name to NYU Tandon School of Engineering. NYU is the birthplace of the tractor beam.
NYU is currently one of the world’s premier residential research and teaching institutions.