The Birth Of a Modern University

On a spring day 50 years ago, a “great gathering” of 2,200 guests reflecting the highest echelons of government and academia filled the Assembly Hall of Hunter College. The momentous occasion marked two milestones: the granting two weeks earlier of university status to New York City’s 114-year-old municipal college system, and the inauguration of The City University of New York’s first Chancellor.

The senators and congressmen, college presidents and political leaders heard keynote speaker U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Abraham Ribicoff challenge the new City University to “help young people to achieve” and “imbue them with the desire for excellence.” The new Chancellor, Dr. John Rutherford Everett, a former philosophy professor, quoted Pericles as he likened New York City to ancient Athens and defined a university’s mission as the nurturing of great citizens.

“The names of the great centers of learning echo down the ages from the past: Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Bologna,” declared Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. that April 24. “Our own American heritage contributes Harvard, Yale, Princeton … Now the four senior colleges Queens, Brooklyn, Hunter and City, and the three community colleges will be coordinated by the Chancellor to make them all part of one great university….”

CUNY Then and Now

1961 2011
91,450 (fall 1960)
Includes senior college day session undergraduates, School of General Studies, division of Graduate Studies and Adult Education
All institutions
(compared with all institutions
in 1961)
City College,
Hunter College, Brooklyn College, Queens College,
Staten Island Community College, Bronx Community College, Queensborough Community College
11 Senior Colleges
6 community colleges,
William E. Macaulay Honors College
Graduate School and University Center, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, CUNY School of Law, CUNY School of Professional Studies, CUNY School of Public Health
Degrees Offered
Faculty Members
(day session)
(full-time instructional teachers)
(March 2011)

Lawyer Gustave Rosenberg, chairman of the Board of Higher Education, which had coordinated the system since the 1920s, invoked its historic mission: “that in a democratic society, the higher reaches of education are not the exclusive privilege of an elite, but an opportunity and a necessity for all qualified citizens who desire it, regardless of race, creed, or color.”

Academic excellence. Public service. A centralized system. Opportunity for all. These ideas had propelled public higher education in New York City almost since the founding of The Free Academy in 1847, through more than a century of expansion to meet a rising demand for seats. Now, buffeted by political, social, financial and institutional forces, the system needed to expand again. A tsunami of students, born in the post-World War II years, was expected to flood the city’s colleges in the early ’60s. With only four, selective four-year public colleges and three community colleges, and graduate offerings capped at the master’s degree level, the system was unprepared for the coming influx.

Just two weeks earlier, the Board had announced, “Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s pen signed into history today, April 11, 1961, at 4:30 p.m., The City University of New York.” The signed legislation codified university status for the system composed of City, Hunter, Brooklyn and Queens colleges, and Staten Island, Bronx and Queensborough community colleges, and envisioned a centralized institution empowered to develop Ph.D. programs.

At the time, the system had some 91,000 students, employed some 2,200 full-time teachers, and offered baccalaureate, associate and master’s degrees. It was overseen by the Board of Higher Education, forerunner of CUNY’s Board of Trustees, which had just recently appointed its first Chancellor — Everett — to manage the pre-University system and coordinate its widening constellation of schools as an integrated institution. In 1961, the system was still largely funded by the city and partially by student fees — tuition — for courses taken by part-time and nonmatriculated students, as well as those enrolled in community colleges or graduate programs.

CUNY was born as The Free Academy in 1847, but its establishment as a Ph.D.- granting institution in 1961 provided the foundation for CUNY the modern public university. Its evolution would proceed slowly, involving power, funding and political battles revolving around city-state relations, local politics, and at times controversial approaches to fulfilling CUNY’s historic mission of providing New Yorkers both access and excellence in higher education. It would now be possible, Mayor Wagner told the inaugural audience of dignitaries that day in 1961, “for a New York boy or girl to progress from Kindergarten to the Doctor of Philosophy degree within the schools and colleges comprised within the City of New York.”

The soaring speeches celebrating The City University’s promise must have seemed an ironic memory four and a half years later, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 1965, when another milestone was about to take place. It was already a changed institution, but not necessarily as expected. Everett was no longer Chancellor, having resigned two years into the job after what one newspaper called “a behind the scenes struggle for control” of the University. New York Herald Tribune education reporter Terry Ferrer reported “smoldering arguments …. They involved everything from the future of university graduate programs, to interference by Mayor Wagner,” futile attempts to obtain city funding for the proposed doctoral programs, and slights such as the Board’s rehiring of Dr. Buell Gallagher as president of City College, without consulting with Everett.

And now, five days before Thanksgiving of 1965, Everett’s successor, Dr. Albert Hosmer Bowker, was resigning too, along with Dean of Students Harry Levy, Brooklyn College President Harry Gideonse, and Hunter College President John Meng — a group of educators representing most of the top officials of the City University system.

Hunter College student teachers look in on an elementary school class via closed-circuit TV in 1961.

It was a bare-knuckles showdown in what had been a two-year power struggle between Bowker and the Board — and, another turning point in the development of CUNY.

A World War II statistician and former dean of graduate studies at Stanford University, Albert Bowker had, like Everett, been stymied in launching the University’s Ph.D. programs and in obtaining adequate funding to cope with rising enrollments and inadequate campuses he would later recall as “slums.” Bowker, whose mumbling masked a shrewdly strategic mind, had repeatedly butted heads with Board of Higher Education Chairman Gustave Rosenberg.

Bowker “found essentially the same problems which had beleaguered his predecessor: too little authority, too much interference by the Board, and an underlying resistance to change. He found that these problems seriously inhibited his capacity to build a doctoral program — the job he was recruited to perform,” wrote Sheila C. Gordon in her well-received 1975 Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation, “The Transformation of The City University of New York, 1945-1970.”

State officials’ actions added to the pressure. “Shortly after authorizing the new University, the State conveyed to the City its intention to provide no financial support, to the dismay of those who were planning the doctoral program,” Gordon wrote. “It was generally believed that the State was withholding funds in order to extract certain commitments — specifically the intention to charge tuition — from the City as a condition of future aid.”

There were precedents for charging tuition. Dating to the founding of The Free Academy in 1847, free tuition had been held as a sacrosanct tradition that had permitted high-achieving students to earn diplomas free of charge from the legendary “Harvard of the Proletariat” — City College — and the other public colleges founded during the early 20th century to serve a surging population fueled by immigration. But only students who met selective requirements were eligible to matriculate tuition-free in the four-year colleges. Many “non-matriculating” students whose high school averages fell short, paid to attend the public colleges.

In fall 1909, under the presidency of John Houston Finley, City College launched an evening baccalaureate program serving 200 students. Over time, in the decades that followed, the system’s night Schools of General Studies served tens of thousands of “non-matriculating” students who paid tuition for their courses. In fall of 1957, while nearly 36,000 attended the city colleges for free, some 24,000 paid as much as $10 a credit or $300 a year, based on a 15-credit semester — still a value compared with the $900 per year charged that year by private New York University.

Also paying tuition in 1957 were 546 community college students, 8,737 graduate students and 12,371 in adult-education courses. An early-1960s newspaper ad touted “Evening Courses for Men & Women” at Hunter, offering a smorgasbord of classes including accounting, “cookery” and TV writing, for “$20 per course and up.”

Tuition and other student fees comprised 19 percent of the system’s $46.8 million in total receipts for the 1956-57 fiscal year, according to Board of Higher Education reports.

In the early 1960s, the state Legislature removed the mandate for free tuition in the city, but the tradition of providing it to the top students continued. However, the “abandonment of the free tuition requirement was to launch a City-State struggle in which the doctoral program (at the City University) was often a pawn,” wrote Gordon.

It was in this atmosphere that Chancellor Bowker, frustrated by his inability to get the doctoral program off the ground, and by his dealings with Rosenberg, went public in 1965 with a proposal for a funding mechanism to pay for his desperately needed capital projects. His plan called for charging students $400 tuition, which would be fully offset by federal, state and city student scholarships and in the end cost students nothing.

Night students, graduate students, community college students and adult education students had for years been paying fees that had come to comprise a significant portion of the system’s revenues.

Yet Bowker’s proposal was explosive enough to draw a rebuke from the Board of Higher Education, which along with alumni associations of the older four-year colleges, passionately guarded the free tuition policy and were wary of state attempts to bring the tuition model in place at the State University, to the city. “So then the Board met,” Bowker recalled in a 1993 interview, and declared that the college presidents “had not shown proper fealty to the Board, and [Brooklyn College President] Harry Gideonse [made] the wonderful statement, ‘Fealty is for medieval serfs. I am not a slave.’”

The four University administrators resigned. The battle was on for control of The City University.

“Bowker had persisted through two frustrating years of attempting to change minds and programs,” Gordon wrote of this turning point in CUNY’s history. “In the brinkmanship style which was characteristic of him, he publicly confronted the Board over the issue of the professional autonomy of the Chancellor.”

After several months of maneuvering and back-channel talks with City Hall, of “dramatic public hearings, daily front-page news coverage, student demonstrations, and attacks on all fronts,” Bowker “emerged victorious.”

Rosenberg eventually was eased out as Board chairman; his departure had been one of Bowker’s conditions for his own return. Rosenberg served for several months as the first chairman of The City University Construction Fund and resigned to take an appointment as a city judge.

Merit-based free tuition — already a battlefield between city and state —

survived another decade, until the fiscal crisis of the ’70s.  >> Read the entire story of  “The Birth of a Modern University” at