Marking Milestones, Leading Onward

May 2, 2011 | CUNY Matters Columns

This year marks a significant milestone in CUNY’s history.  Fifty years ago, New York City’s higher education landscape experienced a series of significant shifts that led to the birth of the modern-day City University of New York.  On April 11, 1961, state legislation transforming the city’s seven-college municipal college system into an interconnected university system with new Ph.D.-granting authority was signed by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.

Of course, the University traces its roots to 1847, with the founding of the Free Academy, and a number of our colleges have long and rich histories pre-dating 1961.  But this year we are proud to recognize the critical milestones of 1961: the codification of the CUNY system, then the nation’s largest public university, and the birth of the Graduate Center.

The authorization to create doctoral programs elevated public higher education in the city to new heights while fulfilling the University’s historic imperatives: to educate “the children of the whole people” and to provide New York with a well-trained work force.  At the time, a looming shortage of teachers was cited by CUNY’s first dean of graduate studies, Mina Rees.  She asked the state for $6.3 million to develop CUNY’s doctoral offerings in nine disciplines.  Today, the Graduate Center is home to more than 30 doctoral programs, including nationally ranked courses of study.

To acknowledge these historic developments, Senior Vice Chancellor for University Relations and Board Secretary Jay Hershenson is overseeing publication of a special commemorative issue of our “Salute to Scholars” magazine, which will be distributed in time for the fall 2011 semester, with assistance from the staff of the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College.

In addition, under the leadership of President William Kelly, the Graduate Center will commemorate its 50th anniversary with a series of special events—including two convocations, in October 2011 and April 2012—focusing on prominent scholarship, past and present, as well as the publication of the Graduate Center history.  The anniversary theme will highlight 2011-12 fundraising efforts and many other events.

The reconstitution of the city’s municipal college system and the creation of New York’s public graduate school 50 years ago led to a period of great expansion of the University.  Today, CUNY is organized in accordance with The City University of New York Financing and Governance Act, enacted in 1979 by the State of New York.  The University comprises 23 colleges and professional schools located throughout the five boroughs and serves a record number of degree-seeking students—260,000 in fall 2010.

More than a decade of internal reforms has fueled an academic and reputational renaissance at the University.  At a time when states are slashing funds for public higher education, CUNY is drawing increasing numbers of students.  Last year, for the first time, it was necessary to institute a wait list for admission in order to maintain the academic quality of our programs.

Students and families know that CUNY offers great value in today’s higher education marketplace.  Affordable tuition, financial aid for lower-income students, and a rational funding strategy—the CUNY Compact—help keep CUNY a very affordable choice.

The financial benefits to our students exceed affordable tuition.  CUNY students borrow less on average for their education than do students at other colleges, private and public, and graduate with less debt.  What’s more, they graduate well prepared for the future.  CUNY is intertwined with the New York City labor market, educating graduates who are ready to work in high-demand professions such as nursing, accounting and other business fields, and health, science, engineering and computer technologies.  In addition, the University engages the city’s communities with targeted workforce development programs that help New Yorkers learn and hone skills and connect with real jobs.

The University’s capital construction program generates billions of dollars in economic activity for New York through new construction, facilities renovation, and critical maintenance.  In the past decade the program has completed more than $2 billion in projects at individual campuses. Projects in the pipeline will generate some 14,000 jobs.

The University—its people, resources, and activities—are integral to our city and state.  The majority of graduates, having bolstered their earning power with CUNY degrees, remain in New York, contributing to its vitality.  The CUNY that opened the doors for them continues to do so for new generations.

As we mark the milestones reached in 1961, we celebrate our history and the visionary work that enabled the development of CUNY as the leading public urban university in the nation.  I hope you will join me in that celebration.