GSAS: An Inside Look
The earned graduate degree came of age in the United States in the 1860s. Until that time, advanced degrees were essentially honorary acknowledgements of devotion to a discipline. In 1866, the University of the City of New York, known since 1888 as New York University, became one of the first institutions in the country to award a doctoral degree for successful completion of academic work.
Interest in graduate education had been seeded three decades earlier, when the university’s founders organized a convention of leading academicians and intellectuals from Europe and America. The participants drafted an ambitious organizational plan for the university. Their recommendations were in many respects visionary, calling for such things as a nondenominational institution, and a very broad curriculum with minimal limits to intellectual exploration. Their proposal was to create two distinct divisions: an undergraduate Collegiate Department, and the University Proper branch containing one graduate and numerous professional schools.
Financial constraints, pressure from the clergy, and internal politics curtailed development of the plan, leading President Albert Gallatin to resign, frustrated in particular by the introduction of a requirement for mastery of classical languages to earn a B.A. His vision had been for graduate education solely in contemporary languages, reasoning that a classical language requirement would make advancement to higher education more classbound.
The university survived, but its bold vision was nowhere in evidence when Henry Mitchell MacCracken joined the faculty in 1884 and prepared to assume the position of vice-chancellor. MacCracken swiftly moved to take control of many core functions, and to develop a curriculum for graduate education. His plan formalized and extended the notion of an earned graduate degree: master’s and doctoral degrees would only be awarded when a student successfully completed all requirements established by the relevant faculty. That policy became official in the fall of 1886, when the Graduate Division was established.
More than a century later, MacCracken’s concept of NYU’s graduate school—renamed the Graduate School of Arts and Science (GSAS) in 1940—continues to define us. MacCracken believed that scholarship should be a full-time pursuit, and in 1890 he oversaw the introduction of a requirement for all students to “maintain residency.” Recognizing that this rule could jeopardize his goal of making graduate education broadly accessible, he pioneered the development of financial aid to facilitate full-time devotion to study. In 1886 he proposed the establishment of two $300 graduate fellowships (an estimated $7,000 today) to be awarded to the top two graduating seniors of the undergraduate college. Then, in 1892, he established five full scholarships. Today, most GSAS doctoral students receive full fellowships and are known, fittingly, as MacCracken Fellows.
Graduate Education at a Research University
At its founding, the Graduate Division offered courses in just thirteen subjects, with most students studying philosophy, economics, languages, literature or pedagogy. This limited curriculum was further narrowed by an early decision to move the field of pedagogy into a separate school, consistent with the prevailing vision for graduate education to be distinct from professional fields. Nevertheless, the graduate curricular offerings expanded rapidly within three distinct subdivisions: “Language and Literature,” “Philosophy and History” (which included psychology and political science), and “Exact and Descriptive Sciences.” This framework ultimately gave rise to the divisions of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Sciences that today collectively include more than fifty distinct departments and programs offering advanced degrees in more than 200 fields of study.
Modern graduate education at its best, particularly at the doctoral level, is a research collaboration between extraordinary students and faculty. To nurture that synergy, Arts and Science at NYU maintains state-of-the-art research facilities, and the Graduate School supports numerous program enrichments, including lectures, conferences, readings, and performances. Members of the Faculty of Arts and Science have collectively won nearly every national prize and award, including multiple Nobel prizes, MacArthur fellowships, Guggenheim fellowships, Pulitzer prizes, and National Medals of Science. Since 2004, the Partners Initiative has increased faculty by more than 25 percent, drawing men and women who lead their fields in teaching and research. One of the Graduate School’s most important functions is to provide the fellowship funding and grant opportunities that make it possible for students to focus on their studies under the guidance of our outstanding faculty. Bright young minds, guided by expert faculty, fuel world-class research in all of our disciplines. This kind of engagement is the hallmark of outstanding graduate education at a research university.
Students in GSAS doctoral programs initially focus on coursework, in which they develop a deep understanding of their discipline, and acquire methodological skills critical for engaging in research. But it is during the years of their doctoral training that many students experience a profound realization: they are immersed in world-class projects, and are making significant contributions to their disciplines; they have joined the select community of advanced learning that inspired them to seek a higher degree in the first place.
Although it is the doctoral students who participate most heavily in research, many of our master’s students are also engaged in important collaborations with the faculty. In fact, it is the engagement with faculty in relatively small but elite master’s programs that distinguishes master’s education in GSAS at a time when the degree is proliferating throughout the United States. In 2007, we opened the Master’s College, an innovative information and referral center charged with enhancing the academic and communal experience of master’s students. GSAS is currently developing new opportunities to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of our master’s students, and to encourage their leadership in our community at large.
Our Students and Our Global Mission
Henry Mitchell MacCracken’s vision lives on in the relationship of GSAS to New York City. He imagined a university that was “of the city as well as in it,” affirming that the urban environment was both a source of and an inspiration for academic life. Today, many of our graduate programs draw on the city’s extraordinary resources and dynamic professionals, intellectuals, and artists. The experience of living, studying, and working in New York enriches the lives of both students and faculty. Like the city itself, GSAS is stimulating, diverse, and vital.
The Graduate School is a world in miniature, part of a cosmopolitan university within a multicultural city and nation. Even the founding class in 1886 had a strong international presence: of twelve resident and three nonresident students, four were from Nova Scotia, Russia, Jamaica and Bulgaria. Today, more than 40 percent of GSAS students are international. The diversity of our students is also apparent in age, race, religion, gender, sexuality, economic circumstances, and language. While we have retained our diverse identity, we have grown dramatically in size. We now enroll about 250 doctoral students and 1,000 master’s students each year from a total of more than 13,000 applicants.
As GSAS takes its place within NYU’s rapidly expanding Global Network University, we are further extending the reach of MacCracken’s ideas. Anchored at Washington Square, we have research and graduate exchange agreements with more than forty international institutions, and strong ties to NYU’s global sites. In the coming years we will expand our international partnerships in research, teaching, and the granting of degrees.
Now and in the future, New York University and the Graduate School of Arts and Science will not only be “in and of the city” but also “in and of the world.”
Our founder’s fundamental challenge was to define graduate education, and to distinguish it from the established traditions of education in law, medicine, and other professions. Henry Mitchell MacCracken crafted a unique identity for our graduate school by shedding connections to professional education, and by establishing graduate subdivisions that would serve as the structure for the emergence of academic disciplines. The very limited graduate curriculum of the early years quickly expanded.
Today, sound grounding in disciplines remains crucial for graduate students who are developing as scholars and carving a place for themselves in the academy. Nevertheless, disciplinary walls are bending: academic research now repeatedly reaches across interdisciplinary boundaries; research bridges have reemerged between the graduate divisions; and GSAS collaborates regularly between schools across the university. As we plan for the future, it is important that we provide our students with opportunities to work both within and between the traditional disciplines while retaining our long-established commitment to an academically rigorous education.
Increasingly, there is a need for GSAS to recognize and support our students’ professional development and career aspirations beyond the academy. This is particularly relevant for a large proportion of our master’s students. Since its creation in 2007, the GSAS Master’s College has made considerable progress in creating a vibrant student community, linking scholars in widely different fields. In 2011, in celebration of the research accomplishments of our master’s students, GSAS introduced the Threesis Academic Challenge, in which participants presented the work of their thesis or final project to a panel of judges in three minutes or less. We are also working with other schools to expand the scale of our support for master’s education by creating an alliance of master’s students across the university.
Another significant challenge for GSAS today is to preserve our core values in an age of globalization. NYU is now engaged in a broad range of initiatives on six continents; no university has a greater global presence. What does this mean for our students? Global citizenship has always defined GSAS: international students represented a third of the inaugural class; today the number approaches close to half, and many of our American-born students take opportunities to study abroad. GSAS offers complete degree programs in Florence, Madrid and Paris; maintains more than forty international exchange agreements with prestigious universities; and supports student fieldwork all over the world.
Whether GSAS students are in master’s or doctoral programs, in New York or abroad, our goal is to give them a strong sense of inclusion while they are here, a reason to stay in touch with us in the future, and a sense of belonging to an institution with a long history—125 years and counting.