Contact Us

Phone: (202) 885-2940 Graduate programs: Undergraduate programs:

Kerwin Hall

Public Affairs, School of 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20016 United States

Back to top

The History of SPA

The School of Public Affairs was born in 1934 in response to a national crisis. A quarter of Americans were out of work. However, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had promised "a New Deal" for Americans. As Roosevelt signed the legislation, a program was born at 19th & F St. that would train those who were part of the pioneering plan. This program would evolve to become American University's School of Public Affairs.

The school taught 80 students in the first semester. By the second semester, 200 federal employees packed makeshift classrooms near the White House. By 1937, about 1,000 people were studying at SPA annually, and the school had launched an undergraduate program.

In the 1960s, students pushed for more public service training and to work for the government. Then, as now, students interned on Capitol Hill, working with lawmakers during the birth of Medicare and Medicaid, federal education funding, the National Endowment for the Arts, environmental legislation, and a long list of acts and programs to address racial injustice and poverty.

Ultimately, many SPA alumni would find careers in government agencies, nonprofits, and institutions that had their roots in this expanded sense of what government should be trying to do. The next four decades would find less drama on campus, but many changes in the scope of government and nature of Washington.

Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking at the SPA Inauguration.

The Founding of SPA: A President’s Support

During President Gray's inauguration ceremony in 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke about SPA's bright potential. You can read President Gray's 1934 New York Times article about SPA's founding.

Read More