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Published: April 3, 2011

Nicholas Murray Butler (1862–1947)

Educator, Nobel Prize laureate and an architect of the modern American university. Born in New Jersey, he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Columbia College and, after studying in Europe at universities in Berlin and Paris, he returned to teach philosophy at Columbia, where he remained for the next 60 years, more than 40 of them as president. Butler built Columbia into a university of 7,500 students and helped establish schools of journalism, business, social work, library science, dentistry and public health; he also added the School of General Studies for adult education and a summer session.
Appointed professor of philosophy and education in 1890, he plunged into the study of theories of learning, education, teaching and curricular organization. He made extensive reports on state and local teaching methods and founded the journal Educational Review. He organized and became the first president of Columbia’s New York College for the Training of Teachers, which, in 1898, became Teachers College of Columbia University. In 1902, Columbia University named him its 12th president.
Butler’s ambitions for Columbia meshed perfectly with those of his two immediate predecessors. Frederick A. P. Barnard had added the first graduate schools and expanded Columbia enrollment from 100 to 2,000 students. The wealthy former merchant Seth Low personally paid for the addition of Columbia’s huge library and presided over the addition of the medical school and Butler’s new Teachers College. Building especially on the foundation laid by Barnard and Low, Butler transformed Columbia into the international center for learning it remains today. By 2000, Columbia had more than 2,000 faculty and offered more than 100 baccalaureate, 160 master’s and 80 doctoral programs to about 19,000 students from around the world.
Nicholas Murray Butler (1862–1947)

Columbia University president and Nobel laureate Nicholas Murray Butler (Library of Congress)

Butler’s influence reached far beyond the Columbia campus. He helped his home state of New Jersey organize its public library system and vocational schools and reorganized the state’s teachers colleges. On the national scene, he helped organize the College Entrance Examination Board and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Butler was also deeply involved in American politics and campaigned actively for women’s suffrage and against prohibition. An advisor to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, he was a last-minute replacement as Taft’s vice-presidential candidate in 1912 and an unsuccessful candidate for the 1920 Republican nomination for president. A consummate internationalist who devoted much of his off-campus life to the cause of world peace, Butler led five international conferences on international arbitration between 1907 and 1912 and helped organize the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, serving as its president from 1925 to 1945. He was instrumental in the drafting of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which 62 nations eventually signed, agreeing to outlaw war as a means of settling international differences. (While in Rome to obtain the support of Pius XI for the pact, he helped the pope reorganize and modernize the Vatican Library.) In 1931, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with American social reformer Jane Addams.
Butler published more than 3,000 books, articles, essays, reports and speeches, including 17 volumes of correspondence with presidents of virtually every nation. He received honorary degrees from more than 40 colleges and universities around the world and served as president or trustee of more than two dozen cultural, educational and political organizations.
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