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A group of faculty members proposed the idea of a liberal arts institute as an innovative way to provide intellectual as well as physical "space" for the scholarly development of the faculty. Their goal was to create an imaginatively designed and managed institute, outside the curriculum but creatively linked to it, to give faculty, students and outside experts a place to collaborate on research projects of broad scope.

They also envisioned a rich series of public events related to these projects to enhance the intellectual life of the college.

A generous bequest from Louise Wolff Kahn '31 substantially augmented the Louise W. and Edmund J. Kahn Fund for Faculty Excellence, making it possible to establish the Kahn Liberal Arts Institute in 1998. The institute opened its permanent quarters on the third floor of Neilson Library in September 2000.