1947: The Founding of GS

Robert Ast '08
May 01, 2017

As the Columbia University School of General Studies celebrates its 70th anniversary, the "GS at 70" series highlights critical moments in the creation and growth of the School.

In 1946, Columbia was in crisis. A year earlier, President Nicholas Murray Butler had retired after nearly half a century in office, leaving no obvious successor. Enrollment had plummeted after the Great Depression and World War II, while federal funding related to the war effort was drying up. Then, following the enactment of the GI Bill and demobilization of the Armed Forces, thousands of veterans appeared on campus.

Though some in academia expressed concerns about whether veterans returning from the war could adapt to college life, veterans took to higher education with aplomb—as the Columbia Spectator noted in its year-end review of 1946, “all fears about the GI were allayed as the man in the plaid pants and battle jacket easily assumed his place in the college community”—and in the process helped to broaden the popular conception of what, and who, a college education was for. A significant percentage of these student-veterans would never have attended college without the access and benefits provided by the GI Bill. Their numbers included women who had served in units such as the WACS (Women’s Army Corps) and WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). While not all groups benefited equally from the GI Bill, the pre-war notion of the “College Man” began to seem increasingly anachronistic in the more democratic and diverse landscape it fostered.

At Columbia one institution was well-suited to meet the needs of this new population. University Extension, formally established in 1904 under the name Extension Teaching, served students who fell outside the typical undergraduate paradigm: individuals who were older than the age of traditional students; who studied part time while working; and who took courses occasionally, to satisfy intellectual curiosity or professional interest. University Extension was a natural fit for student-veterans, and the majority studying at Columbia as undergraduates found a home there, including more than 3,000 in both the spring and fall of 1946.

Space was found wherever possible. To accommodate the demand for housing, Columbia partnered with the federal government to turn Rockland County’s Camp Shanks, the primary embarkation point for soldiers deployed to Europe, into Shanks Village, a community for student-veterans attending college in New York City and their families. On campus, prefabricated barracks, originally intended for military duty, were set up behind Low Library as a veteran affairs office, and as Harry Morgan Ayres, director of University Extension, noted in his annual report for 1946, there was “no corner or cranny unused between the hours of eight in the morning and eleven at night.”

Just as veterans changed higher education on a broad scale, they also transformed University Extension, by bringing to the fore certain tensions inherent in the program’s dual role as the home of both degree-seeking nontraditional students and those taking the occasional class. Previously, the latter far outnumbered the former, but the bloc of degree-focused veterans reversed the proportions, and prompted administrators to provide enhanced academic advising and support services. As Director Ayres remarked in his report, the program’s operations had become “a very different thing from ‘extension’ as generally conceived …. The name University Extension no longer describes what we do...”

Ayres worked in concert with a faculty committee and Acting President Frank Fackenthal to outline an administrative reorganization that would recognize degree-seeking men and women “as the core of the whole enterprise,” as he later wrote. A new name was chosen, one that reflected the expansive curriculum on offer, the elite and diverse medieval universities known as studia generalia, and the degree, Bachelor of Science in General Studies. The School of General Studies officially began operations on July 1, 1947, initiating a new chapter in a much longer story of educational innovation and engagement.

From June 1 - 4, 2017, GS alumni, students, and staff celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the School of General Studies at Columbia Reunion. To view event photos, please visit the Columbia University School of General Studies Alumni Facebook Page.

"GS at 70"

1968: The Fight for Equality

1991: Academic Integration at Columbia

1997: Expanding the Possibilities of Nontraditional Education