The First Summer Session in 1900

Summer School of Surveying in Litchfield, Connecticut, September 1886. Scan #1006. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

Since the 1870s, the School of Mines had regularly offered summer instruction in geodesy, geology, mining and metallurgy. But on July 2, 1900, the University opened its doors for a new term, the Summer Session, with courses in a wide range of disciplines — botany, education, English, geography, history, etc. — and taught by Columbia faculty members. 417 students registered for that first summer and, for $25, they could take up to three courses.

In December 1898, President Seth Low sent a circular to the Columbia faculty. He proposed a working plan for a summer school: daily sessions would run during six consecutive weeks; each course would meet daily from Monday to Friday for 30 lectures; instructors would receive two-thirds of the student fees and one-third would be retained for administrative expenses. In the letter, faculty were asked if they were inclined to offer any courses, and, if so, which courses and the length of each course in hours per week. Faculty had one week to submit their reply, and those responses are available in the Summer Session records (Franz Boas was unavailable for Summer 1899. He already had plans.)

The Trustees’ Committee on Education supported the Summer Session initiative. Harvard and Chicago already led successful programs, and they noted that a “larger proportion of these students were teachers whose occupations precluded them from attending University courses.” In their opinion, it was “an important duty of the University to make its resources available to the utmost possible extent to the men and women who are engaged in educating the youth of this City.” 

With the Trustees’ conditional approval, Columbia offered its first summer session in 1900 with 28 courses and 417 registered students, under the guidance of Director of Summer Session Nicholas Murray Butler. As stated in the Catalogue, courses were “open to all men and women on equal terms.” (In fact, in the early days of the summer session, women would make up about 60% of the registered students.) By 1903 enrollment had almost doubled (940 in 77 courses). The Summer Session was granted permanent status (no longer needing the yearly Trustee renewal) in 1904 and it was formally incorporated into the University statutes.

University President Dwight D. Eisenhower address crowd of summer session students and reporters standing on the Low Plaza steps, 1948. Scan #0399. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

[For more information about the history of the summer session, see Angus Burrell’s A History of Adult Education at Columbia University (CE1954 G286).]