A global outlook, practical idealism, a passion for public service: They’re part of American University today, and they were in the air in 1893, when AU was chartered by Congress.
George Washington had dreamed of a “national university” in the nation’s capital. But it took John Fletcher Hurst to found a university that, in many ways, embodies that dream.
Today’s students would find a kindred spirit in Hurst, who studied abroad in the 1850s and later ventured through the Middle East and South Asia, even writing a cultural history of Sri Lanka. By the time ground was broken in 1896, he was the respected Methodist bishop of Washington, D.C., with a vision of a university that would train public servants for the future.
The land Bishop Hurst chose for AU was on the rural fringe of the nation’s capital, but it was already rich with Washington history. Abraham Lincoln had visited troops at Fort Gaines, which perched on the high ground now held by Ward Circle and the Katzen Arts Center.
Presidential footsteps would continue to echo through AU history. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of a building, named for Hurst’s friend, President William McKinley. When the Methodist-affiliated university opened in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson gave the dedication.
Growing with Washington
If AU’s Washington ties were evident from the start, so was its groundbreaking spirit. The first 28 students included five women, a notable figure at a time before women could vote, and an African American student won a fellowship in 1915 to pursue a doctorate.
Undergraduates were first admitted in 1925, by which time graduate students had shifted to a downtown campus on F Street, near the White House. It was there in the heart of downtown that in 1934, at the start of the New Deal, AU launched a program to help train federal employees in new methods of public administration. President Franklin Roosevelt, who spoke at the event launching the program, promised it would have the “hearty cooperation” of all branches of his administration. The program would evolve into today’s School of Public Affairs.
During World War II, students shared the campus with the Navy, which used it for research and training. It wasn’t the first time that war impacted AU directly. During World War I, the still largely undeveloped campus had been turned over briefly to the war department for use as a military camp, testing and training site.
The period after World War II was a time of growth and innovation. The Washington Semester Program, founded in 1947, began drawing students from around the nation—and ultimately, the world—to participate in what was then a new concept: semester internships in the nation’s capital.
In 1949, the Washington College of Law merged with AU, adding its rich history—it was founded for women in 1896—to the pioneering spirit of the university. By that same year, though the nation’s capital was still a segregated town, the AU community included over 400 African American students.
The 1950s brought further expansion. By 1955, the business program launched in 1924 had grown so large it became a separate school, now known as the Kogod School of Business.
Ground was broken for the School of International Service in 1957 by President Dwight Eisenhower, who urged the new school to remember that “the waging of peace demands the best we have.”
A few years later, President John Kennedy used the 1963 AU commencement as the occasion for a pivotal foreign policy speech calling on the Soviet Union to work with the United States on a nuclear test ban treaty.
It was just the beginning of a news-making decade at AU. Like their peers around the country, AU students angry about the Vietnam War took their concerns to the streets—but here, that often meant blocking the cars of Washington’s policy makers as they passed the campus on their daily commutes, or hosting students who came from around the country to join the protests in the nation’s capital.
The next decades brought a quieter campus, but the issues of the day continued to engage faculty and students as new centers, institutes, and programs were born and schools and departments expanded. In 1984, the School of Communication was established, reflecting the growth of the journalism program from the first courses in the 1920s.
A new century
Academic programs continuously gained high national rankings, and the quality of AU’s students was reflected in the high number of merit awards and prestigious national scholarships and fellowships, such as Fulbright awards and Presidential Management Fellowships.
The university’s growing reputation in the creative arts was underscored with the opening of the 296-seat Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre in 2003 and the Katzen Arts Center in 2005. With 130,000 square feet of space, the Katzen includes a 30,000 square foot art museum with three floors of exhibition space, the Washington area’s largest university facility for exhibiting art.
In 2007, Neil Kerwin, SPA/BA ’71, became the first alum to become president of AU. A noted scholar of public policy and the regulatory process, he has been part of the life of AU for 40 years, as student, professor, dean, and provost, and is now guiding the university through the process of implementing its strategic plan, “American University and the Next Decade: Leadership for a Changing World,” which expresses a conviction that AU’s academic strengths are grounded in its core values of social responsibility and a commitment to cultural and intellectual diversity.
It’s a vision for the twenty-first century, but it’s grounded in ideals that go back to John Fletcher Hurst and the dream of a university that makes a difference in the lives of its students, its community, and the world.