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Columbia University was founded in 1754 as King’s College by royal charter of King George II of England. It is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York and the fifth oldest in the United States.
Controversy preceded the founding of the College, with various groups competing to determine its location and religious affiliation. Advocates of New York City met with success on the first point, while the Anglicans prevailed on the latter. However, all constituencies agreed to commit themselves to principles of religious liberty in establishing the policies of the College.
In July 1754, Samuel Johnson held the first classes in a new schoolhouse adjoining Trinity Church, located on what is now lower Broadway in Manhattan. There were eight students in the class. At King’s College, the future leaders of colonial society could receive an education designed to “enlarge the Mind, improve the Understanding, polish the whole Man, and qualify them to support the brightest Characters in all the elevated stations in life.” One early manifestation of the institution’s lofty goals was the establishment in 1767 of the first American medical school to grant the M.D. degree.
The college reopened in 1784 with a new name—Columbia—that embodied the patriotic fervor that had inspired the nation’s quest for independence. The revitalized institution was recognizable as the descendant of its colonial ancestor, thanks to its inclination toward Anglicanism and the needs of an urban population, but there were important differences: Columbia College reflected the legacy of the Revolution in the greater economic, denominational, and geographic diversity of its new students and leaders. Cloistered campus life gave way to the more common phenomenon of day students who lived at home or lodged in the city.
In 1857, the College moved from Park Place, near the present site of city hall, to Forty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue, where it remained for the next forty years. During the last half of the nineteenth century, Columbia rapidly assumed the shape of a modern university. The Columbia School of Law was founded in 1858. The country’s first mining school, a precursor of today’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, was established in 1864 and awarded the first Columbia Ph.D. in 1875.
When Seth Low became Columbia’s president in 1890, he vigorously promoted the university ideal for the College, placing the fragmented federation of autonomous and competing schools under a central administration that stressed cooperation and shared resources. Barnard College for women had become affiliated with Columbia in 1889; the medical school came under the aegis of the University in 1891, followed by Teachers College in 1893. The development of graduate faculties in political science, philosophy, and pure science established Columbia as one of the nation’s earliest centers for graduate education. In 1896, the trustees officially authorized the use of yet another new name, Columbia University, and today the institution is officially known as Columbia University in the City of New York.