The front gate at American University
American University in 1916
The American University was established in the District of Columbia by an Act of Congress on December 5, 1892, primarily due to the efforts of Methodist bishop John Fletcher Hurst, who aimed to create an institution that could train future public servants. Hurst also chose the site of the university, which at the time was the rural periphery of the District. After more than three decades devoted principally to securing financial support, the university was officially dedicated on May 15, 1914, with its first instructions beginning October of that year, when 28 students were enrolled, 19 of whom were graduates and the remainder special students not candidates for a degree. The First Commencement, at which no degrees were awarded, was held on June 2, 1915. The Second Annual Commencement was held the following year and saw the awarding of the first degrees: one master's degree and two doctor's degrees. AU was notable in admitting women and African Americans, which was uncommon in higher education at the time; among its first 28 students were five women, while an African American doctoral student was admitted in 1915.
Birthplace of Army Chemical Corps
Shortly after these early commencement ceremonies, classes were interrupted by war. During World War I, the university allowed the U.S. military to use some of its grounds for testing. In 1917, the U.S. military divided American University into two segments, Camp American University and Camp Leach. Camp American University became the birthplace of the United States' chemical weapons program and the site of chemical weapons testing; this required a major cleanup effort in the 1990s. Camp Leach was home to advanced research, development, and testing of modern camouflage techniques. As of 2014 , the Army Corps of Engineers is still removing ordnance including mustard gas and mortar shells.
Instruction was initially offered only at the graduate level, in accordance with the original plan of the founders. This changed in 1925 with the establishment of the College of Liberal Arts (subsequently named the College of Arts and Sciences), which offered the first undergraduate degrees and programs. What is now the School of Public Affairs was founded in 1934, partly to educate future federal employees in new approaches to public administration introduced by the New Deal; during the event commemorating its launch, President Franklin D. Roosevelt stressed cooperation between the school and his administration.
AU's relationship to the U.S. government continued during World War II, when the campus hosted the U.S. Navy Bomb Disposal School and a WAVE barracks. For AU's role in these wartime efforts, the Victory ship SS American Victory was named in its honor.
The post-war period saw considerable growth and restructuring of AU. In 1947, the Washington Semester Program was established, pioneering the concept of
semester-long internships in the nation's capital. In 1949, the university merged with the Washington College of Law, which had begun in 1896 as the first law school founded by women and the first coeducational institution for the professional study of law in the District. Shortly thereafter, three departments were reorganized as schools: the School of Business Administration in 1955 (subsequently named the Robert P. and Arlene R. Kogod College of Business Administration and in 1999 renamed the Kogod School of Business); the School of Government and Public Administration in 1957; and the School of International Service in 1958.
In the early 1960s, the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency operated a think tank under the guise of Operation Camelot at American University. The government abandoned the think tank after the operation came to public attention. AU's political involvement was furthered by President John F. Kennedy's Spring 1963 commencement address. In the speech, Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and to reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war during that juncture of the Cold War.
From 1965 to 1977, the College of Continuing Education existed as a degree-granting college with responsibility for on- and off-campus adult education programs. The Lucy Webb Hayes School of Nursing provided undergraduate study in Nursing from 1965 until 1988. In 1972, the School of Government and Public Administration, the School of International Service, the Center for Technology and Administration, and the Center for the Administration of Justice (subsequently named the School of Justice) were incorporated into the College of Public and International Affairs.
The university bought the Immaculata Campus in 1986 to alleviate space problems. This would later become Tenley Campus.
In 1986, construction on the Adnan Khashoggi Sports and Convocation Center began. Financed with $5 million from and named for Saudi Arabian Trustee Adnan Khashoggi, the building was intended to update athletics facilities and provide a new arena, as well as a parking garage and office space for administrative services. Costing an estimated $19 million, the building represented the largest construction project to date, but met protest by both faculty and students to the university's use of Khashoggi's name on the building due to his involvement in international arms trade.
In 1988, the College of Public and International Affairs was reorganized to create two free-standing schools: the School of International Service and the School of Public Affairs, incorporating the School of Government and Public Administration and the School of Justice. That same year, construction on the Adnan Khashoggi Sports Center completed while the Iran–Contra Affair controversy was at its height although his name remained on the building until after Khashoggi defaulted on his donation obligation in the mid to late 1990s.
The School of Communication became independent from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1993.
In 1997, American University of Sharjah, the only coeducational, liberal arts university in the United Arab Emirates, signed a two-year contract with AU to provide academic management, a contract which has since been extended multiple times through August 2009. A team of senior AU administrators relocated to Sharjah to assist in the establishment of the university and guide it through the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation process.
In 2003, American launched the largest fund raising campaign in its history. The program, ANewAU, has a goal of raising $200 million. As of October 2009 , the university had raised $189.6 million. When the campaign is completed, the university's website stated that it would "help to attract and retain the finest faculty, increase scholarship support, create and endow research and policy centers, ensure state-of-the-art resources in all of our schools and colleges, expand global programs, and secure the long-term financial health of the university by boosting the endowment".
In the fall of 2005, the new Katzen Arts Center opened.
Benjamin Ladner was suspended from his position as president of the university on August 24, 2005, pending an investigation into possible misuse of university funds for his personal expenses. University faculty passed votes of no confidence in President Ladner on September 26. On October 10, 2005, the Board of Trustees of American University decided that Ladner would not return to American University as its president. Dr. Cornelius M. Kerwin, a long-time AU administrator, served as interim president and was appointed to the position permanently on September 1, 2007, after two outsiders declined an offer from the Board of Trustees. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ladner received a total compensation of $4,270,665 in his final year of service, the second highest of any university president in the United States.
Ground was broken for the new School of International Service building on November 14, 2007, and completed in 2010. A speech was given by Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D-HI).
In 2015, American became one of the few universities to offer an accredited, accelerated online MBA program.
Neil Kerwin retired as AU's president at the end of May 2017. The current president is Sylvia Mathews Burwell, whose tenure officially began on June 1, 2017.