A Brief History of the department of Psychology at New York University
by Edgar (Ted) E. Coons
Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience
New York University
New York University (NYU) was founded at Washington Square in New York City in 1831. Psychology as an academic enterprise there can be divided to date into approximately six periods.
The First Period (1836-1885): started with the first mention of the term in a course title, “Elements of Psychology and Ethics,” taught in the Collegiate College (later the University College of Arts and Sciences). It was preceded by Logic and followed by Evidence of Christianity, as typical of the curricular pattern of that time. However, in 1870, the name “psychology” in course titles gave way to the descriptive, “intellectual philosophy.” In those courses for the next 20 years, The Human Intellect by Noah Porter Jr. or his abridged Elements of Intellectual Science served as basic text although psychology was still referred to in close connections with logic, moral philosophy, metaphysics and religion as a part of the Department of Philosophy’s curriculum. through the first granting of a psychology-themed Ph.D. degree (“Augustine’s Psychology”) in the School of Pedagogy in 1893 to the founding of the first Department of Psychology (undergraduate) in the School of Arts & Science in 1922.
The second era ran from then through 1945. It saw the establishment of the Graduate Department of Psychology in 1927 which granted many MA’s but no Ph.D’s. until 1935 and thereafter only 15 more. It was at NYU’s University Heights campus in 1930 that the first meeting of the NY Branch of APA was held, later to be renamed the Eastern Psychological Association.
The end of WWII in 1946 marked the beginning of the third era. It was characterized by a burgeoning growth of interest in psychology, particularly clinical psychology as a career possibility, by returning veterans entering college on the GI Bill. Accordingly, in 1948 the Clinical Program was established in the Department and was innovatively highly successful in ways broadly later imitated by other psychology departments in establishing a Psychotherapy Practicum for Ph.D. students under the supervision of a large number of highly skilled psychoanalysts who had fled to the U.S.A (particularly New York City) from Europe during the war. It was also during this period that other areas of concentration such as social, industrial-organizational, and experimental began also to be designated officially as programs at NYU and elsewhere, partly because of a change in training grant policies by the government to the effect that such awards could no longer be made to departments as a whole but only to subunits as officially sanctioned.
Somewhat arbitrarily, 1965 can be designated as the beginning of the fourth era, a period of consolidation. By that time something in the neighborhood of 300 Ph.D.’s (over half of them in the Clinical Program) and countless B.A.’s and M.A.’s had been granted in the Psychology Department within the Faculty of Arts & Science. More could be added to this, if numbers were counted from the School of Education’s own psychology department with its emphasis on training in counseling and education. Early during this era, the Program in Community Psychology was created. It was also early on that NSF gave to the Experimental Program a nationally-coveted Centers of Excellence Award which was to attract highly visible faculty and superior student talent. It set the stage for what was later (1987) to crystallize out of the physiological psychology component of the program as the Center for Neural Science bridging between different departments at the Washington Square Campus having research interests in the nervous system. Meanwhile, the production of Ph.D.’s continued at an accelerated rate such that by the end of that era in 2002 the count stood at over 1300.
The fifth era is defined by radical changes in the program structure of the department beginning in 2002 with the ending of the Clinical Program, followed by absorption of the Industrial-Organizational Program into the Social Program and the merger of the Community Program with the Steinhardt School of Education. Presaging that was the conversion in 1997 of the Experimental Program into the Cognitive & Perception Program with the capture of its physiological and behavioral components by the Center for Neural Science, now a department in its own right since 1994. The overarching premise behind this fifth era is its and the University’s deep commitment to basic research. It is a commitment well-rewarded by unusual success in the attainment of government grant funding, a success which has allowed the Department in joint cooperation with the Center for Neural Science to obtain its own research-committed fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine. The result by this year 2010 has already been a steady stream of highly publicized, ground-breaking research into perceptual, cognitive, and social processes as mediated by the brain and garnered by an internationally-known faculty.