James Earl Russell becomes President of the College, serving until 1926. He set about transforming TC into a center of advanced scholarship and educational training, advocating that teaching was a professional career of experts, similar to the fields of medicine, law, and engineering. Russell oversaw an increase in student enrollment from 169 students to nearly 5,000, a tenfold expansion in budget, and the growth of the College's physical plant from two buildings to 17. By 1900 Russell had developed four goals of teacher education that would guide TC in its work: general culture (liberal education); special scholarship (the content area of teaching); professional knowledge (theory, psychology, and history of education); and technical skill (study and practice of pedagogy).

Russell's strong belief in the importance of research in education resulted, during his tenure, in TC's establishment of two experimental schools: the Speyer School (1902) and the Lincoln School (1917). In 1921 the Institute of Educational Research was created to promote the scientific study of education in cooperation with several departments of TC. Two other research institutes -- the International Institute and the Institute of Child Welfare Research -- also were established during Russell's presidency.