The history of the Columbia School of Social Work is to some extent the history of social work itself. Social work, both as a profession and an academic field, traces its roots back to 1898, when the first formal classes in “social philanthropy” were offered by the Charity Organization Society (COS) of New York City. COS had its roots in the late 19th-century movement to address urban poverty.

Through incarnations as the New York School of Philanthropy, the New York School of Social Work, and the New York School of Social Work at Columbia University, this same institution was formally designated as the Columbia University School of Social Work (CUSSW) in 1963. In 2013 it has become the Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW).

For more than a hundred years, the School has played a role in almost every major development in the social work profession. It continues to be innovative to this day.

The following timeline presents a few highlights from the School’s storied history:

  • 1898 - First Summer School in Philanthropic Work, established in New York by the Charity Organization Society; 25 men and women attend classes at 105 East 22nd Street. The Summer School remained as the primary training source until 1904.
  • 1904 - The first eight-month course of full-time graduate study is offered at the newly renamed New York School of Philanthropy. To ensure cooperation with Columbia University, Columbia’s president is an ex-officio member of the Society’s special committee responsible for the School’s affairs.
  • 1906 Dr. George Edmund Haynes, the first African American to receive a doctorate from Columbia University, decides to use his social work training to help found the forerunner of the National Urban League. The School forms a coalition to support the League’s founding.
  • 1917 The School's name is changed to New York School of Social Work.
  • 1922 The Bureau of Child Guidance is founded to expand training for child guidance work. The School has been instrumental in this.
  • 1929 Porter Lee, the School’s dean and a casework teacher, co-authors, with Dr. Marion Kenworthy,  the first psychiatric casework text. (Kenworthy is also the first psychiatrist in a full-time position at a social work school.)
  • 1931 The School moves to 122 East 22nd Street, the Russell Sage Building.
  • 1935 The Social Security Act is enacted. The School has played a role in writing and implementing the Act.
  • 1940 The School is affiliated with Columbia University as one of its graduate schools; the MS degree is awarded. Also around this time, the School becomes active in extending the social work role into the U.S. military.
  • 1949 The School moves to the Andrew Carnegie Mansion at 2 East 91st Street.
  • 1952 The School's first doctoral degree is awarded, raising the academic level of social work.
  • 1961 The Peace Corps is founded by President John F. Kennedy. The School has formed a coalition in support of this initiative.
  • 1963 The School's name is changed formally to the Columbia University School of Social Work.
  • 1966 The School launches a major longitudinal study of foster children, their families and the agencies serving them, which influences national policy.
  • 1971 The School moves to McVickar Hall on Columbia’s campus.
  • 1978 Sr. Mary Paul Janchill, who received her Ph.D. in social work from the school in 1968, establishes the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, a program that demonstrates the ecosystemic perspective that she and other doctoral students helped to pioneer at the School.
  • 1991 The first fully endowed professorship is established, followed by the full endowment of the Kenworthy Chair and nine additional endowed professorships.
  • 1996 McVickar Hall undergoes extensive renovations; technological innovations include new electronic classrooms and computer labs.
  • 1997 The United Nations Economic and Social Council Secretariat offers the School new program support and fellowship. School’s endowment rises to over $40 million.
  • 1998 Columbia University School of Social Work marks its centennial anniversary.
  • 2002 Construction of new School of Social Work building on Columbia’s campus begins; Dr. Jeanette C. Takamura is named the School’s 17th, and its first female, dean.
  • 2004 The School moves to its current location: 1255 Amsterdam Avenue, on the northeast corner of the Columbia University campus.
  • 2007 The Global Health Research Center of Central Asia is founded under Nabila El-Bassel, the Willma and Albert Musher Professor of Social Work.
  • 2008 The Jordan Social Work Education for Excellence Program is established.
  • 2012 The School establishes the Fisher Cummings Washington Fellows Program with a major gift.

For more information on CSSW’s history, see The Columbia University School of Social Work: A Centennial Celebration, edited by Ronald A. Feldman and Sheila B. Kamerman (Columbia University Press, 2001).