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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

History of the College of Arts and Sciences

Archival image of Hall of Languages.

By the mid-19th century, Syracuse was growing exponentially thanks to the burgeoning salt industry and the new Erie Canal which brought goods, people and ideas to this central city. Booming with commerce and a constant influx of new residents, it was a natural hub for progressive causes.

Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and John Brown stopped frequently in Syracuse, which was a major stop on the Underground Railroad—the path to freedom in Canada for enslaved people. Women’s suffrage leaders such as Susan B. Anthony also visited Syracuse, building support for crucial social change.

Against this backdrop, the Methodist State Convention met in Syracuse and found it the ideal location for a new university. The delegates recognized this large, up-and-coming, progressive city—centrally located in New York State—as the perfect environment for an institution to grow and prosper.

Since the early 1870s, when the University was founded and the College of Arts and Sciences came into existence, the founders’ vision has been realized many times over. Once a college in rented rooms downtown, Syracuse is now an "R1" institution, performing high levels of cutting-edge research, much of it in A&S labs, now housed above the city on University Hill. A&S continues to foster progressive thought and social justice through its African American Studies, Philosophy, Religion, and Women's and Gender Studies departments and related community-facing programs.

The timeline below gives a glimpse of the highlights in A&S’ and the University’s history. While many things have changed in A&S over the years, one thing remains the same. Through the transformative power of the liberal arts, for more than 150 years, A&S students have been empowered to think freely, act ethically and live decisively as the next generation of leaders—across the world and our country, in the classroom and in the boardroom.

What will the next 150 years bring?

History Highlights

The Board of Trustees of Syracuse University signs the University's charter and certificate of incorporation.

The College of Liberal Arts (renamed the College of Arts and Sciences in 1970) is founded. More than 40 students enroll in the College, occupying a rental property on Montgomery Street in downtown Syracuse. The curriculum includes courses in algebra, geometry, Latin, Greek, history, physiology, education and rhetoric.

The University erects its first building: the $136,000 Hall of Languages.

Syracuse launches the nation’s first bachelor of fine arts program.

John Raymond French, professor of mathematics, is the College’s first dean. He becomes the University’s vice chancellor.

Syracuse accepts its first doctoral dissertation from one Lucien M. Underwood—a geology student who joins the biology faculty and oversees the Museum of Natural History collections.

Holden Observatory, the second building on campus, opens to the public. More than a century later, the 320-ton limestone structure relocates to its current site near Crouse College, traveling at a rate of three inches per hour.

Syracuse establishes the Leopold von Ranke Library, which becomes the nucleus of the Special Collections Research Center. In 1907, his collection of more than 20,000 books, manuscripts and personal papers moves to the Carnegie Building.

Albert Leonard, an English pedagogy professor, is appointed dean.

Frank Smalley ’74, G’76, G’91, H’24, an instructor of chemistry, becomes dean. He holds other appointments on campus, including acting chancellor, vice chancellor, alumni president and historian.

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie donates $150,000 to the University to create an eponymous library, one of dozens he funds nationwide. Based in the Carnegie Building, the Carnegie Library houses texts in biology, chemistry, geology, physics, astronomy, pure and applied mathematics, probability and statistics, and mathematics education. The library shares the building with the Department of Mathematics.

Bowne Hall, named for trustee Samuel W. Bowne, is erected to house teaching and research in the biological sciences, chemistry, geography and psychology.

Lyman Hall—supported by a bequest from trustee John Lyman in memory of his two daughters—also opens. The fourth floor contains the Museum of Natural History, destroyed by a fire in 1937.

Henry Allen Peck ’85, G’88, an instructor of mathematics and astronomy, is appointed dean. He also directs Holden Observatory, and becomes vice chancellor of the University.

On the heels of the U.S. entry into World War I, the University establishes the Students Army Training Corps (SATC), the forerunner of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). SATC members take courses in auto mechanics, telegraphy, carpentry, surveying, foreign languages and government.

William Henry Metzler, professor of mathematics, is appointed dean. He also serves as dean of the Graduate School.

William L. Bray becomes acting dean of the College. Professor and chair of botany, he also oversees the Graduate School.

The University establishes the Maxwell School, a professional graduate school that becomes a leader in public administration and international affairs. Social science undergraduates continue earning degrees from the College of Liberal Arts.

William Pratt Graham ’93, an electrical engineering professor, is named acting dean of the College. He becomes the first Syracuse alumnus and non-clergy elected chancellor.

Karl Clayton “K.C.” Leebrick, who specializes in history and political science, is named dean.

Finla G. Crawford, professor of political science and future vice chancellor, becomes dean.

More than 18,000 students, faculty, and alumni serve in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. Those affiliated with the College include Tuskegee Airmen Wimeth Sidat-Singh ’37 and Hilliard Pouncey G’58.

Noted concert pianist William C. Fleming establishes the Department of Fine Arts, renamed the Department of Art and Music Histories (AMH) in 2009. He authors the landmark book “Arts and Ideas” (Wadsworth Publishing, 1955), which catalyzed the interdisciplinary humanities movement.

Eric H. Faigle ’28, G’30, H’68, professor of geography, is elected dean. He later becomes dean of the School of Speech and Dramatic Art and vice president of the University.

The Syracuse in Italy Program opens doors in Florence, paving the way for what is now Syracuse University Abroad, a longtime partner of the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S).

Syracuse erects the Biological Research Building, the first air-conditioned, climate-controlled research structure on campus.

The College launches the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing and the M.A. in Renaissance Art—the latter of which is the only accredited art history program of its kind to offer most of its coursework in Italy.

Syracuse erects The Physics Building, with the National Science Foundation helping fund construction.

Frederic J. Kramer, professor of German and acting dean of the Graduate School, becomes dean of the College.

A peaceful demonstration by more than a hundred African American students leads to the founding of the Department of African American Studies (1971), the Martin Luther King Jr. Library (1971) and the Community Folk Arts Center (CFAC) (1972).

The College of Liberal Arts is renamed the College of Arts and Sciences.

John Prucha, professor and chair of geology, briefly serves as dean of A&S, before becoming vice chancellor.

Syracuse erects The Heroy Geology Laboratory and Gebbie Speech-Language-Hearing Clinics, the latter of which moves to South Campus in 2013.

Nathan Ginsburg, professor and chair of physics, is the acting dean of the College.

Kenneth P. Goodrich, professor of psychology, is dean of the College.

The Hall of Languages re-opens after a $4 million renovation.

Gerhson Vincow, professor of chemistry and future vice chancellor, becomes permanent dean of the College after 11 months as acting dean.

Ronald Cavanagh, professor and chair of religion, is interim dean of the College. He later becomes vice president of undergraduate studies at Syracuse.

Elliott Portnoy '86, a political science major in A&S and Maxwell, is accepted to Oxford as Syracuse’s first Rhodes Scholar.

Samuel Gorovitz becomes dean of the College. His Syracuse career includes other appointments, such as professor of philosophy and founding director of The Renée Crown University Honors Program.

Syracuse erects the Science and Technology Center, housing several academic departments and units, including chemistry.

Robert G. Jensen, professor and chair of geography in A&S and Maxwell, becomes dean of the College.

Cathryn R. Newton, the Heroy Professor and chair of Earth sciences, is elected dean. Co-founder of the University’s Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE) program, the future Provost’s Faculty Fellow oversees the construction of the Life Sciences Complex and renovation of the Tolley Humanities Building.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awards Syracuse a $1 million grant to form the Central New York Humanities Corridor, a large-scale, interdisciplinary partnership with Cornell University and the University of Rochester.

The newly renovated CFAC and Paul Robeson Performing Arts Center re-open in downtown Syracuse as part of the Connective Corridor.

Following a two-year, $8 million face-lift, the Tolley Building reopens. It houses the Syracuse University Humanities Center, the Central New York Humanities Corridor and other campus-wide initiatives in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

The University’s largest academic construction project, the $107 million, 200,000-sqaure-foot Life Sciences Complex, officially opens. For the first time in Syracuse history, the departments of Biology and Chemistry are under one roof, along with interdisciplinary programs in the natural sciences.

George M. Langford becomes dean of the College. Following his tenure, he returns to the faculty as a Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience, professor of biology and staunch advocate of Inclusive Excellence (IE) education.

John Giammatteo ‘11, a dual major in anthropology (A&S and Maxwell) and magazine journalism (Newhouse), is Syracuse’s first Marshall Scholar, supporting graduate study in the United Kingdom.

Karin Ruhlandt, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, is named interim dean of A&S. Her appointment becomes permanent a year later.

Syracuse physicists make history with their role in the detection of gravitational waves, confirming a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity.

The College unveils the newly renovated Patricia Meyers Druger Astronomy Learning Center at Holden Observatory.

The College continues to play a key role in Nobel Prize-winning gravitational-wave research. One such detection, caused by the collision of two massive neutron stars, confirms the origins of Earth’s most precious metals, including gold.

Cameron MacPherson ’17, a graduate student in Pan African studies, is Syracuse’s first Mitchell Scholar, supporting his study of intercultural theology at Trinity College in Dublin.

Syracuse, Cornell and the University of Rochester endow the Central New York Humanities Corridor in perpetuity, thanks to a matching gift from the Mellon Foundation. The large-scale initiative now encompasses the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium.

A&S celebrates its 150th anniversary.