State University of New York

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STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK. Public higher education in New York State has an ironic history. The University of the State of New York (SUNY) arguably constitutes the oldest public educational government in the world. But its regents, who oversee all educational institutions in New York, traditionally championed New York's numerous private colleges and discouraged public rivals. Thus, New York, a leader in state control of education, was the last state to create a public higher education system.

When Democratic legislators proposed a $50-million state university in 1946, Governor Thomas E. Dewey, a social progressive and fiscal conservative, blanched at the price tag, but he appointed a commission to design such an institution. Its proposal merely incorporated the existing state-supported institutions into an umbrella organization under the regents' control. However, some members, including several Dewey advisers, wanted a state university free from regents' control. Their portrayal of private institutions' discrimination against Jews and African Americans, particularly by medical and dental schools, convinced Dewey to support an independent state university that, beyond the regents' control, could administer schools of medicine, dentistry, nursing, and public health.

This plan eventually prevailed. On 4 April 1948, Dewey created the State University of New York, incorporating more than thirty existing state-supported institutions of higher education outside New York City and envisioning future medical schools and community colleges. The initial state university consisted of eleven state teachers colleges, six agricultural and technical institutes, five institutes of applied arts and sciences, three temporary veterans colleges, the New York State Maritime Academy, and six "contract colleges" administered by private institutions. Opponents delayed implementation for a year. Finally, on 4 April 1949, the leaders of the various units and the first president, Alvin Eurich (1949–1951), gathered in Albany to formally inaugurate SUNY. Few could have imagined that the fledgling university, with fewer than 30,000 students and just over 2,000 faculty, would grow to become one of the world's largest.

The political imbroglio left scars. Eager to include the legislation among his 1948 presidential election credentials, Dewey compromised. SUNY would create neither research universities or liberal arts colleges. The teachers colleges (except Albany) were barred from training secondary school teachers for a decade, retarding their possible evolution into liberal arts colleges. Private fundraising was banned for two decades. And the regents over-saw SUNY's budget.

Not surprisingly, SUNY's first decade was unexceptional. It acquired medical schools in Brooklyn and Syracuse and a small liberal arts college in Binghamton, and opened a small campus on Long Island. But enrollment remained under 40,000, and SUNY's second president, Frank Carlson (1951–1957), was dismissed for campaigning to purchase Syracuse University as the flagship campus for the system.

In the late 1950s, however, several important developments took place that would spur SUNY's growth in the decade to come. The ban on training secondary school teachers expired. The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik spurred an increase in spending on education. The first "baby boomers" entered adolescence. And Nelson Rockefeller was elected governor of New York State.

Rockefeller's Heald Commission laid the basis for expansion. Bonds issued by the State University Construction Fund and the first tuition charges would finance capital costs. Budgetary control was extricated from the regents. Potential opposition from private colleges was avoided by offering them public funds for construction and student aid. A parallel structure, City University of New York (CUNY), was created in 1961 as a downstate equivalent of SUNY.

Expansion followed swiftly. The teachers colleges expanded enrollments and evolved into liberal arts colleges. Research universities emerged at Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo, and Stony Brook. Community colleges mushroomed, eventually totaling thirty. A sixty-four-campus system enrolled 280,000 students in 1970. By the late 1960s, SUNY was being compared to the California system and SUNY Chancellor Samuel B. Gould (1964– 1970) appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

SUNY's upward trajectory soon flattened. Gould retired in 1970; the New York economy slowed; student protests tried taxpayers' patience; and even Rockefeller believed SUNY was overextended. Gould's successor, Ernest Boyer (1970–1977), faced immediate fiscal restraints and then retrenchment, as well as renewed warfare with the regents. Although enrollment (361,000 by 1980) continued to rise, SUNY's prestige declined, while the frustrations over missed opportunities grew. The 1980s and early 1990s witnessed rising tuition, flat enrollments, and shrinking state budgets. The state's share of SUNY college and university budgets plummeted from 90 percent in the late 1980s to well under 50 percent a decade later, necessitating a vocabulary shift from "state-supported" to "state-assisted."

Mid-1990s prosperity underwrote some regeneration. The University Centers at Buffalo and Stony Brook were admitted into the American Association of Universities, while Binghamton was hailed as a "public Ivy." Former teachers colleges evolved into mature, comprehensive colleges. Improved state budgets held tuition constant and funded overdue renovation and construction. SUNY entered the new millennium with 373,000 students, 15,000 faculty, 64 campuses, 1.9 billion alumni, and a physical plant valued at $11 billion.

In a half-century, New York built a system that serves over one-third of its high school graduates and whose acronym is widely respected in academia. But this extraordinary investment and SUNY's many educational achievements have failed to bring public esteem, due in part to the absence of a flagship campus or big-time athletics. SUNY's fiftieth anniversary passed nearly unnoticed and campuses increasingly distanced themselves from the acronym. SUNY's history illustrates the difficult process of creating institutions of mass higher education, especially in northeastern states with prestigious private institutions. SUNY thrived under Governor Rockefeller's aegis but did not sustain the broad public support necessary to replicate the California model.


Abbott, Frank C. Government Policy and Higher Education: A Study of the Regents of the University of the State of New York, 1784–1949. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1958.

Bleeker, Samuel E. The Politics of Architecture: A Perspective on Nelson A. Rockefeller. New York: Rutledge Press, 1981.

Carmichael, Oliver Cromwell. New York Establishes a State University: A Case Study in the Process of Policy Formation. Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1955.

Glazer, Judith S. "Nelson Rockefeller and the Politics of Higher Education in New York State." History of Higher Education Annual 9 (1989): 87–114.

Smith, Richard Norton. Thomas E. Dewey and His Times. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

W. BruceLeslie

Kenneth P.O'Brien

See alsoCalifornia Higher Educational System ; Universities, State .


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State University of New York