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Brown University is the seventh oldest institution of higher learning in the United States.

Founded in 1764 as the College of Rhode Island in Warren, Rhode Island, the school moved in 1770 to its present location on College Hill overlooking the capital city of Providence. In 1804, in recognition of a gift from Nicholas Brown, the College of Rhode Island was renamed Brown University. Brown University is renowned for its distinctive student body — independent and self-directed — and for the educational culture that fosters these qualities. Our small size compared to most other leading research universities provides a human scale that allows members of the University community to interact on a meaningful personal level and to develop relationships that enhance the teaching and research work of the University. Brown is committed to excellence in research as well as in teaching. All regular faculty members actively pursue their own research and intellectual interests, teach in both graduate and undergraduate programs and are active in the direction of theses and dissertations. 

The Graduate School at Brown University
Graduate study began at Brown in 1850 with a program that foreshadowed our current 5th-Year Master’s — that is, that a student could receive a master’s degree with an additional year of study. This option was discontinued in 1857, but graduate study was again revived again in 1887, when the faculty and University Fellows added the master’s and the PhD degrees to Brown’s repertoire. The first master’s degrees were awarded in 1888, and the first PhD in 1889. Brown was part of a distinguished cohort of early doctoral granting institutions, including Chicago, Harvard, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Cornell, adding doctoral programs in the late 19th century. In that era, Princeton resisted, arguing that the PhD should remain an honorary rather than an earned degree. At the turn of the century, then, Brown was part of a pre-eminent group of leaders in graduate education.

The early part of the 20th century saw a relatively modest investment in doctoral education, with only 106,000 total master’s and doctoral degrees awarded nationally, 7% of all higher education degrees. This led to a “pipeline” problem, with both industry and teaching compromised by a lack of qualified individuals. The early 1940s were a critical growth period for the academy, with graduate enrolment doubling between 1940 and 1950. In 1950, 237,000 higher degrees were awarded.

In 1903, a Graduate Department was established with its own dean. (Deans and their portraits are on the second floor hallway of the Horace Mann building.) In May 1927, the Graduate Department became the Graduate School.

While Brown led the charge for graduate, and especially doctoral, education in the 1880s-1930s, its embrace of graduate education remained modest in scale. Undergraduate enrolment grew at Brown in the 20th century, but its graduate population remained stable — so that by the 1970s, it was one of the smallest graduate schools among its cohort. New master’s programs were added in the 1990s and early 21st century.

On October 12, 1968, the Graduate Center was dedicated. It brought graduate housing together with administrative offices for the deans. The Graduate School moved in 2004 to its current home in the Horace Mann building.

Women and Minorities in the Graduate School
From its earliest years, women have been a part of doctoral education at Brown. Women were admitted to graduate study at Brown beginning in 1892. The first woman to receive a doctoral degree was Martha Tarbell, who received a PhD in German studies in 1897. The first Asian American receiving a PhD was Sze-Chen Liao in 1921. In the next decade, the first African American PhD, Samuel M. Nabrit, received a degree in biology in 1932; Jose Amor y Vazquez was the first Hispanic American to receive a graduate degree, in Hispanic studies in 1957; and Lora Lee Johnson, the first Native American, obtained a PhD in classics in 1984.


  • Barry, Jay and Martha Mitchell, A Tale of Two Centuries: A Warm and Richly Illustrated History of Brown University, 1764-1985. Providence: Brown Alumni Monthly, 1985, 266. 
  • Bronson, Walter C., The History of Brown University. Providence: Published by the University, 1914, 407-408; 428; 480-481. 
  • Martha Mitchell, entry on “Graduate School” in Encyclopedia Brunoniana. 1993, 260-263 (but with some mistaken dates).
  • Edwin Slosson, Great American Universities. 1910.
  • Richard Storr, The Beginnings of Graduate Education in America. 1953. 
  • John Thelin, A History of American Higher Education. 2004.