City University of New York

views updated May 17 2018


CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK. The nation's largest urban university emerged from the same early-nineteenth-century, Quaker-inspired Free School movement that had inspired the creation of New York City's public school system. In 1846 Townsend Harris proposed a college for men who had completed their public schooling. Three years later the New York Free Academy, established by the state legislature in 1847, opened its doors in James Renwick's new Gothic structure on east Twenty-third Street. This institution became the College of the City of New York (CCNY) in 1866 and continued to grow under the leadership of such presidents as the Gettysburg hero General Alexander Webb (1869–1902) and the political scientist John Huston Finley (1903–1913).

In 1907 the college moved to St. Nicholas Heights, overlooking Harlem. There it occupied George Browne Post's magnificent array of Tudor Gothic buildings constructed of Manhattan schist (from the city's new subway excavations) and trimmed in brilliant terra cotta. This small campus was augmented in 1915 by the addition of Lewisohn Stadium, which not only provided athletic and military facilities for an important ROTC program but also offered the city a popular concert venue until its demolition in 1973. The original downtown building and its successors became the home of the business school, eventually known as the Bernard M. Baruch School of Business and Public Administration.

CCNY's most storied era was the 1920s and 1930s, when Jewish students took their place in the line of immigrant communities hungering for higher education. Known for its academic excellence as "the proletarian Harvard," and for its student radicalism as "the little Red schoolhouse," the college had a special meaning for an immigrant Jewish community that was largely denied access to the elite schools of the Protestant establishment. CCNY was a center of leftist intellectual ferment during the 1920s and 1930s, a contentious era that has been vividly recalled in the memoirs of Jewish intellectuals like Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin. Other notable alumni have included the jurist Felix Frankfurter, the financier Bernard Baruch, the medical researcher Jonas Salk, the actor Edward G. Robinson, Mayor Edward Koch, and General Colin Powell.

The Female Normal and High School (later the Normal College) for the education of teachers opened its doors in 1870 and achieved its own high academic reputation. Renamed Hunter College in 1914, it long resisted proposals to merge with CCNY that would threaten its independence. (CCNY and Hunter College became fully coeducational only after 1950.) Hunter soon expanded to include a Bronx campus, later known as Herbert Lehman College. In response to New York City's explosive growth, the state established a Board of Higher Education (1926) with the mission of integrating the college system and expanding public access. A Police Academy (later the John Jay College of Criminal Justice) was established in 1925, Brooklyn College in 1930, Queens College in 1937, and numerous two-year community colleges in subsequent decades.

Full integration of the city's higher education system came in 1961, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the bill creating the City University of New York (CUNY). The individual colleges were already awarding master's degrees. With the creation of a midtown Graduate Center that relied on the vast resources of the New York Public Library at Forty-second Street, their faculty resources could be pooled to great effect. The first CUNY doctorates were awarded in 1965. With CCNY and Brooklyn College as the flagship colleges, the CUNY of the early 1960s boasted some of the finest university faculties in the nation.

During the 1960s the city colleges did not escape controversy. CCNY, the former refuge of the immigrant poor, had become an elite and highly selective institution that some deemed out of touch with its Harlem community. Amid demands for "open admissions," a student protest briefly shut the college in 1969. President Buell Gallagher resigned under pressure. Concessions were made, and soon the decaying and badly overcrowded campus was further burdened with temporary facilities for remedial education. Vast numbers of new students who had been poorly served by the city's struggling public school system needed tutoring. The New York City fiscal crisis of the 1970s prevented full implementation of promised remedial programs, and the imposition of tuition for the entire university system (1976) ended the 130-year tradition of free public higher education. By 1979 the city's Board of Higher Education had become the CUNY Board of Trustees, and the city's university was significantly controlled by the state legislature.

Overcrowding and decay of facilities have troubled CUNY in subsequent years, but the university has simultaneously expanded to include schools of medicine, law, and engineering. A perceived decline in academic standards has been a constant burden for the senior colleges. The 1999 reorganization of the CUNY administration under Governor George Pataki and CUNY board chairman Herman Badillo formally signaled an end to open admissions and a renewed quest for higher standards. The enormous university, with more than 200,000 students, remains a vital factor in the contentious world of urban education.


Glazer, Nathan. "The College and the City Then and Now." The Public Interest (summer 1998): 30–44.

Gorelick, Sherry. City College and the Jewish Poor: Education in New York, 1880–1924. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1981.

Gross, Theodore L. Academic Turmoil: The Reality and Promise of Open Education. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980.

Howe, Irving. A Margin of Hope: An Intellectual Autobiography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

Roff, Sandra Shoiock, Anthony M. Cucchiara, and Barbara J. Dunlap. From the Free Academy to CUNY: Illustrating Public Higher Education in New York City, 1847–1997. New York: Fordham University Press, 2000.


See alsoEducation, Higher ; State University of New York .


views updated May 23 2018

CUNY City University of New York