In 1980, the decision is made to found the Wissenschaftskolleg in accordance with an idea from Berlin's Science Senator of the time, Peter Glotz. The founding meeting elects Peter Wapnewski its first Rector. In May 1981, Joachim Nettelbeck is appointed Secretary of the Wissenschaftskolleg. On October 1 of the same year, the Fellows of the first "class" arrive.
After Founding Rector Peter Wapnewski, Wolf Lepenies, Professor of Sociology and Historian of Science was Rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg from 1986 to 2001. Dieter Grimm, Professor of Public Law at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and a former Judge at the Federal Constitutional Court, held this office from October 2001 to March 2007. He was succeeded in April 2007 by Luca Giuliani, Professor of Classical Archaeology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, who turned over to Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, Professor of Early Modern History at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, in September 2018.