Columbia University's School of International Affairs was founded in 1946 in the aftermath of World War II. Emphasizing practical training, the School's mission was to foster understanding of geographic regions of vital interest and to prepare diplomats, officials, and other professionals to meet the complex needs of the postwar world.

The School originated in dynamic regional institutes that drew on Columbia's renowned resources in history, economics, political science, linguistics, and other fields, showing an interdisciplinary vision considered bold for its day. During the 1950s and 1960s, the School expanded in scope and depth. SIA, as it was then called, developed a national and international reputation as a leading center for educational and research programs in area studies, security, and international relations. By 1967, the School was home to eight regional institutes, covering nearly every corner of the globe. Originally housed in a row of brownstones, the School moved to a new building on Columbia University's east campus in 1971.

In 1981, the School was renamed the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Then, in the early 1990s, SIPA began appointing its own faculty, adding to the list of distinguished social and natural scientists and humanists already at the University.

As it has for more than seven decades, SIPA provides committed students with the necessary skills and perspectives to become responsible leaders in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. The School's mission, which has evolved over the years, stays true to this history: to support the global public interest by educating students to serve and to lead, and to produce and share new knowledge on the critical public policy challenges facing the global community.