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Nicholas M. Butler (1862–1947)

Early Career, Columbia University, Political Career

President of Columbia University from 1902 to 1945, Nicholas Murray Butler was a prominent figure in the development of the modern American university and of public secondary education.

Born into a religious and politically active middle-class family in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Butler valued public service from an early age. He graduated from Paterson High School in New Jersey at age thirteen. Following independent study, he entered Columbia College in 1878 and began a sixty-nine-year association with that institution.

Early Career

While an undergraduate, Butler gained the attention of Columbia president Frederick A. P. Barnard. Butler considered a political and legal career, however, Barnard convinced him that he could have more impact in the emerging field of professionally directed education. Butler earned an A.B (1882), M.A. (1883) and Ph.D. (1884), all in philosophy, at Columbia, specializing in the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He studied for a year at the universities of Berlin and Paris.

In 1885 Butler returned to Columbia as an assistant professor of philosophy. He quickly joined a faculty contingent seeking to expand Columbia College into a European-style graduate university–a vision shared by Barnard and his successor, Seth Low. As Low assumed the presidency in 1890, he asked Butler to outline this proposal to the faculty in a general assembly. The presentation marked Butler as a rising star. Elected dean of the philosophy department, he played significant roles in establishing Columbia's summer school and relocating the university to Morningside Heights on the upper West Side of Manhattan.

During this stage of his career, Butler saw that a professionally guided public school system would be vital to industrial-age America. This system would require competent teacher-training institutions, a professional literature base, separation from politics, and organized associations. When Barnard's plans for a Columbia training school for teachers was thwarted, he persuaded Butler in 1887 to accept the presidency of the Industrial Education Association of New York, which promoted vocational training for working-class children. Butler refocused the aims of the association on teacher training and encouraged it to purchase land adjoining Columbia. By 1893 it had become Teachers College, affiliated with Columbia.

In 1891 Butler founded the Educational Review, a journal of educational philosophies and developments. Serving as editor until 1921, Butler invited national educational and political figures to contribute. He also helped transform the National Education Association from an intellectual association into an organization advocating Progressive educational policies. While its president (1894–1895), Butler formed committees to examine the transition of students from school to college. One notable result was the introduction of the College Entrance Examination Board (1900), which standardized college entrance tests and clarified the role of secondary education.

Butler's interest in politics helped to establish professional autonomy for education systems. From 1887 through 1895 he served on the New Jersey State Board of Education. He chaired the Paterson school board from 1892 through 1893. In these roles he led efforts to remove state political interference from local New Jersey school systems. In New York City, he did the same, spurring the creation of a citywide school board that emphasized professionalism and policy over political spoils (1895–1897). When New York City's consolidation was complete, New York State sought a similar reform with Butler's advice, completed in 1904. During this time, Butler established a friendship with Governor Theodore Roosevelt, who nicknamed him "Nicholas Miraculous."

Columbia University

When Low resigned as Columbia's president in 1901, Butler became acting president, and president a year later. During his forty-four-year tenure, Columbia experienced phenomenal growth in enrollment, resources, and prestige. In 1911 Columbia's 7,500 students made it the largest university in the world. By 1914 it had the largest university endowment in America. Adopting a "corporate" model, Butler centralized the administration and ended the faculty's power to make top administrative appointments. He believed faculty should do what they do best–teach and research. His greatest faculty challenge involved academic freedom. Butler believed a faculty member's academic freedom was limited to an area of expertise and extended only to what he termed "university freedom," defined as a university's right to reach its institutional potential. No individual was greater than the university or had the right to harm its reputation. This issue subsided somewhat following World War I, and Butler took pride in the diversity of faculty perspectives and talent. Columbia in this age was often referred to as the "American Acropolis."

Political Career

His friendship with Theodore Roosevelt placed him in the president's inner circle until they disagreed over Roosevelt's antitrust initiatives. In 1913 he opposed Theodore Roosevelt's presidential bid and received Republican electoral votes for the vice presidency. He ran for the presidency on the Republican ticket in 1920, receiving New York's convention votes as "favorite son." He opposed the party's embrace of prohibition, however, and lost clout. His interests shifted toward international issues as American diplomatic influence increased. From 1925 to 1945 he was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In 1927 he assisted the U.S. State Department in developing the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which called for disarmament and conscientious objection to war. In 1931 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Jane Addams.


BUTLER, NICHOLAS MURRAY. 1915. The Meaning of Education. New York: Scribners.

BUTLER, NICHOLAS MURRAY. 1921. Scholarship and Service. New York: Scribners.

BUTLER, NICHOLAS MURRAY. 1939. Across the Busy Years, Vols. 1 and 2. New York: Scribners.

MARRIN, ALBERT. 1976. Nicholas Murray Butler. Boston: Twayne.

WHITTEMORE, RICHARD. 1970. Nicholas Murray Butler and Public Education 1862–1911. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia: AACSB International - Program to Septima Poinsette Clark (1898–1987)