Secretary of Treasury under
Thomas Jefferson and
James Madison, declared his intention to establish "in this immense and fast-growing city ... a system of rational and practical education fitting and graciously opened to all".
 A three-day-long "literary and scientific convention" held in
City Hall in 1830 and attended by over 100 delegates debated the terms of a plan for a new university. These New Yorkers believed the city needed a university designed for young men who would be admitted based upon merit rather than birthright or social class.
On April 18, 1831, an institution was established, with the support of a group of prominent New York City residents from the city's
 Albert Gallatin was elected as the institution's first president.
 On April 21, 1831, the new institution received its
charter and was incorporated as the University of the City of New York by the
New York State Legislature; older documents often refer to it by that name. The university has been popularly known as New York University since its inception and was officially renamed New York University in 1896.
 In 1832, NYU held its first classes in rented rooms of four-story Clinton Hall, situated near
 In 1835, the
School of Law, NYU's first professional school, was established. Although the impetus to found a new school was partly a reaction by
Presbyterians to what they perceived as the
 NYU was created
non-denominational, unlike many American colleges at the time.
American Chemical Society was founded in 1876 at NYU.
The University Heights campus, now home to
It became one of the nation's largest universities, with an enrollment of 9,300 in 1917.
 NYU had its
Washington Square campus since its founding. The university purchased a campus at
University Heights in
the Bronx because of overcrowding on the old campus. NYU also had a desire to follow New York City's development further uptown. NYU's move to the Bronx occurred in 1894, spearheaded by the efforts of Chancellor
Henry Mitchell MacCracken.
 The University Heights campus was far more spacious than its predecessor was. As a result, most of the university's operations along with the undergraduate
College of Arts and Science and School of Engineering were housed there. NYU's administrative operations were moved to the new campus, but the graduate schools of the university remained at Washington Square.
 In 1914, Washington Square College was founded as the downtown undergraduate college of NYU. In 1935, NYU opened the "Nassau College-Hofstra Memorial of New York University at Hempstead, Long Island". This extension would later become a fully independent
In 1950, NYU was elected to the
Association of American Universities, a nonprofit organization of leading public and private research universities.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, financial crisis gripped the New York City government and the troubles spread to the city's institutions, including NYU.
 Feeling the pressures of imminent bankruptcy, NYU President
James McNaughton Hester negotiated the sale of the University Heights campus to the
City University of New York, which occurred in 1973.
 In 1973, the New York University School of Engineering and Science merged into
Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn,
 which eventually merged into NYU in 2014 forming the present
Tandon School of Engineering. After the sale of the Bronx campus, University College merged with Washington Square College. In the 1980s, under the leadership of President
 NYU launched a billion-dollar campaign that was spent almost entirely on updating facilities.
 The campaign was set to complete in 15 years, but ended up being completed in 10.
 In 2003 President
John Sexton launched a $2.5 billion campaign for funds to be spent especially on faculty and financial aid resources.
In 2009, the university responded to a series of New York Times interviews that showed a pattern of labor abuses in its fledgling
Abu Dhabi location, creating a statement of labor values for Abu Dhabi campus workers. A 2014 follow-up article found that while some conditions had improved, contractors for the multibillion-endowment university were still frequently subjecting their workers to third-world labor conditions. The article documented that these conditions included confiscation of worker passports, forced overtime, recruitment fees and cockroach-filled dorms where workers had to sleep under beds. According to the article, workers who attempted to protest the NYU contractors' conditions were promptly arrested.
 Reports also claimed that those arrested by police were later abused at the police station. Many workers who were not local were then deported to their home countries.
 The university quickly responded to the reports with an apology to the workers.
 In 2015, NYU compensated thousands of migrant workers on its Abu Dhabi complex.
From 2007 to 2017, NYU experienced a 96% increase in applications to its university system, increasing from around 35,000 applicants to over 67,000 in 2017. This has caused, even with the addition of a substantially sized engineering school, for the acceptance rate to significantly drop. NYU marked its lowest acceptance rate in modern times in 2017, at a mere 27% of applicants accepted.
 At this rate of growth, NYU is projected to continue to become one of the most exclusive establishments in the world for higher education, even while hosting a student body of over 50,000.
NYU was the founding member of the
League of World Universities, an
international organization consisting of
universities across six continents. The league and its 47 representatives gather every two years to discuss global issues in
L. Jay Oliva formed the organization in 1991 just after he was inaugurated president of New York University.
NYU's board of trustees is currently one of the largest and most powerful in American academia.
The university logo, the upheld
torch, is derived from the
Statue of Liberty, signifying NYU's service to New York City. The torch is depicted on both the NYU seal and the more abstract NYU logo, designed in 1965 by renowned graphic designer
Tom Geismar of the branding and design firm
Chermayeff & Geismar. There are at least two versions of the possible origin of the university color,
violet. Some believe that it may have been chosen because
violets are said to have grown abundantly in Washington Square and around the buttresses of the Old University Building. Others argue that the color may have been adopted because the violet was the flower associated with
Athens, the center of learning in
Washington Square and
Greenwich Village have been hubs of
cultural life in New York City since the early 19th century. Much of this culture has intersected with NYU at various points in its history.
Artists of the
Hudson River School, the United States' first prominent school of painters, settled around Washington Square.
Samuel F.B. Morse, a noted artist who also pioneered the telegraph and created the Morse Code, served as the first chair of Painting and Sculpture. He and
Daniel Huntington were early tenants of the Old University Building in the mid-19th century. (The University rented out studio space and residential apartments within the "academic" building.) As a result, they had notable interaction with the cultural and academic life of the university.
In the 1870s, sculptors
Augustus Saint-Gaudens and
Daniel Chester French lived and worked near the Square. By the 1920s,
Washington Square Park was nationally recognized as a focal point for artistic and moral rebellion. As such, the Washington Square campus became more diverse and bustled with urban energy, contributing to academic change at NYU.
 Famed residents of this time include
John Sloan, and
Maurice Prendergast. In the 1930s, the abstract expressionists
Jackson Pollock and
Willem de Kooning, and the realists
Edward Hopper and
Thomas Hart Benton had studios around Washington Square. In the 1960s the area became one of the centers of the beat and folk generation, when
Allen Ginsberg and
Bob Dylan settled there. This led to tension with the university, which at the time was in the midst of an aggressive facilities expansion phase.
 In 1975, the university opened The
Grey Art Gallery at 100 Washington Square East, housing the NYU art collection and featuring museum quality exhibitions.
Budget and fundraising
NYU has successfully completed a seven-year, $2.5 billion campaign, surpassing expectations by raising more than $3 billion over the seven-year period.
 Started in 2001, this campaign was the university's largest in its history, in which they planned to "raise $1 million per day for scholarships and financial aid, faculty building, new academic initiatives, and enhancing NYU's physical facilities".
 The campaign included a $50 million gift from the Tisch family (after which one building and the
art school are named) and a $60 million gift from six
trustees called "The Partners Fund", aimed at hiring new faculty.
 On October 15, 2007 the university announced that the Silver family donated $50 million to the
School of Social Work, which will be renamed as a result.
 This is the largest donation ever to a school of social work in the United States.
The 2007–2008 academic year was the most successful fundraising year to date for NYU, with the school raising $698 million in only the first 11 months of the year, representing a 70% increase in donations from the prior year.
 The University also recently announced plans for NYU's Call to Action, a new initiative to ask alumni and donors to support financial aid for students at NYU.
The university has announced a 25-year strategic development plan, scheduled to coincide with its
bicentennial in 2031. Included in the "NYU 200" plans are increasing resident and academic space, hiring additional faculty, and involving the New York City community in a transparent planning process. Additionally, NYU hopes to make their buildings more environmentally friendly, which will be facilitated by an evaluation of all campus spaces.
 As a part of this plan, NYU purchased 118 million
wind power during the 2006–2007 academic year – the largest purchase of wind power by any university in the country and any institution in New York City.
 For 2007, the university expanded its purchase of wind power to 132 million kilowatt-hours.
 As a result, the
EPA ranked NYU as one of the greenest colleges in the country in its annual College & University Green Power Challenge.
NYU consistently ranks as one of the top fundraising institutions in the country, raising $449.34 million in 2013 and $455.72 million in 2014.
 NYU is also the 19th wealthiest university in America with $5.3 billion in cash and investments in fiscal year 2014.