Our History

Columbia College’s most memorable moments
Founded in 1754 as King’s College and renamed in 1784, Columbia College is the oldest school within Columbia University and the fifth oldest institution of higher education in the United States. From our founding fathers to the launch of a revolutionary Core Curriculum, take a look at what makes Columbia College singular.

1754

King’s College is chartered in New York City by King George II to “promote liberal education.”

It is designated “The College of the Province of New York, in the City of New York…known by the name of King’s College.” The Rev. Samuel Johnson, one of the three best-known American colonial scholars in Britain (along with Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin), is appointed its first president.

1776

 

Of the 226 students of Kings College (113 of whom graduated), John Jay CC 1764, Robert R. Livingston CC 1765, Gouverneur Morris CC 1766 and Alexander Hamilton CC 1778 go on to play prominent roles in creating the political institutions of the United States. Hamilton signs the Constitution in 1788.

1784

King’s College is renamed Columbia College by the New York State Legislature.

The word “Columbia” recently had been coined by patriotic poets and was first put to historical use here. John Jay CC 1764 and Alexander Hamilton CC 1778 are instrumental in the reopening. The new charter declares Columbia the “mother college” of the University of the State of New York.

1825

The Alumni Association of Columbia College is founded.

There were eight founding members.

1894

The Varsity Show, one of Columbia’s most beloved traditions, begins.

Founded as a fundraiser for Columbia Athletics, the show produces some of the College’s most renowned alumni in music and entertainment: Oscar Hammerstein II CC 1916, Lorenz Hart JRN 1918, Richard Rodgers CC’23, I.A.L Diamond CC’41, Terrence McNally CC’60, Brian Yorkey CC’93 and Tom Kitt CC’96, among others.

1903

Alma Mater, a bronze sculpture by Daniel Chester French — famous for his statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial — is installed in front of Low Memorial Library.

This campus landmark was donated in memory of Robert Goelet CC 1860 by his wife, Harriet W. Goelet. The statue’s scepter is surmounted by the crown of King’s College, and draped in the folds of Alma’s gown is the owl of wisdom.

1912

 
The College becomes the University.

By decree of the Supreme Court of New York State, the Trustees of Columbia College become the Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Columbia had five schools at the time, in addition to Columbia College.

1919

Admissions standards change to allow consideration of an applicant’s “character and promise.”

The Latin requirement had already been dropped in 1916. These changes indicated a commitment to opening the applicant pool to a wider audience.

1919

The College introduces the first course in the Core Curriculum: “Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West.”

The course was based on the “War Issues” and “Peace Issues” classes, developed earlier as a response to WWI.

1920

Professor John Erskine CC 1900 teaches his great books course, the predecessor to Literature Humanities, for the first time.

The basic idea: small groups of students who read one book a week and then spend a few hours discussing it with a pair of instructors.

1923

Henry Louis Gehrig CC’25, signs with the Yankees.

His signing bonus was $1,500.

1925

Lionel Trilling CC’25, GSAS’38 graduates.

Trilling becomes widely known as a Columbia professor of English literature, as one of the greatest literary critics of his generation and as the center of New York’s intelligentsia.

1931

 

University President Nicholas Murray Butler CC 1882 is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to secure world peace through international treaties. He is the second Columbian to win a Nobel Peace Prize and the fourth to win a Nobel Prize in any category.

1937

The Humanities sequence is introduced, after redesign by Mark Van Doren GSAS’21.

It becomes Humanities A (literature, required in the first year) and Humanities B (fine arts, an elective for sophomores). Van Doren won a Pulitzer for poetry in 1940 and published Liberal Education in 1943, further promoting the influential “Great Books” movement.

1947

Raphael, School of Athens (detail)

Humanities B becomes required of all students.

The yearlong sequence is divided into two free-standing courses: Art Humanities and Music Humanities (formally known as “Masterpieces of Western Art” and “Masterpieces of Western Music”).

1947

Professor Wm. Theodore de Bary CC’41, GSAS’53 establishes the first “Oriental Studies” program in the country, which is integrated into the Core.

De Bary led Columbia to the forefront of Asian studies while embodying the ideal of the virtuous citizen in every sphere of University life.

1960

Ferris Booth Hall opens as the first student center.

The building is named in memory of Ferris Booth CC’24, a generous donor, and is designed by the architects of the Empire State Building.

1965

Undergraduates found the Double Discovery Center to engage socially and intellectually with the Columbia neighborhood.

The DDC engaged local students with the intellectual rigor of Columbia and connected Columbia students to the neighborhood.

1968

Students occupy five campus buildings, protesting the University’s work on Morningside Gymnasium and involvement with military agencies.

In the spring semester, as a response, Core courses focus on “Revolutions.”

1975

Jacques Barzun CC’27, GSAS’32 retires from Columbia.

From class valedictorian to recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, National Humanities Medal and a Gold Medal in the Academy of Arts and Letters, Barzun extended tremendous intellectual influence as a philosopher of education and one of the creators of the Core in the 1940’s and beyond.

1981

 
Community Impact is established.

It is founded by Columbia undergraduates to provide food, clothing, shelter, education, job training, and companionship for residents in Columbia’s surrounding communities.

1983

The College admits its first fully coeducational class.

By 1987, 45 percent of the class is female. Two years later, Jane Austen is introduced into Literature Humanities, with the addition of Pride and Prejudice to the syllabus.

1987

John Kluge CC’37 establishes the Kluge Presidential Scholars Program to support students from underrepresented communities.

Kluge's gift demonstrated a commitment to financial aid and ensured access to a College degree for an evermore diverse student population. His 2007 gift of $400 million was the largest to a university at the time. 

1990

The Major Cultures requirement is added.

This is now known as the Global Core.

1999

Alfred Lerner Hall, a new student center, opens.

Named in honor of its benefactor Alfred Lerner CC’55 and designed for open, informal interactions, the “Glass House” won the American Architecture Award and Time Best Design Award in 1999.

2004

Columbia celebrates its 250th anniversary, based on the founding of Columbia College.

Along with events and symposia on Columbia’s history, The Scholar’s Lion, sculpted by Greg Wyatt CC’71, is unveiled by Havemeyer Hall on Dean’s Day. Columbia College alumni sponsors are: Robert Berne CC’60, William Campbell CC’62, Mark Kingdon CC’71, Brooks Klimley CC’79, Mark Lehman CC’73, Richard Witten CC’75, the Class of 1971, and the Class of 1996.

2004

 
Science joins the Core.

After discussions that spanned more than 70 years, the College introduces Frontiers of Science.

2008

Barack Obama CC’83 is elected the 44th President of the United States.

2013

Illustration: R.J. Matson CC’85

The College celebrates the 75th anniversary of Literature Humanities in Low Memorial Library.

See who is who in our celebratory illustration!

2015

 
Columbia College launches its first campaign, Core to Commencement, to inspire and engage our community to reach greater heights.