Early 19th century
City College of New York in 2010, North Campus, looking west. Wingate Hall on the left, Townsend Harris Hall in the background.
The City College of New York was founded as the Free Academy of the City of New York in 1847 by wealthy businessman and president of the Board of Education Townsend Harris. A combination prep school, high school / secondary school and college, it would provide children of immigrants and the poor access to free higher education based on academic merit alone. It was one of the early public high schools in America following earlier similar institutions being founded in Boston (1829),
Philadelphia (1838), and Baltimore (1839).
The Free Academy was the first of what would become a system of municipally-supported colleges – the second, Hunter College, was founded as a women's institution in 1870; and the third, Brooklyn College, was established as a coeducational institution in 1930.
In 1847, New York State Governor John Young had given permission to the state Board of Education to found the Free Academy, which was ratified in a statewide referendum. Founder Townsend Harris proclaimed, "Open the doors to all… Let the children of the rich and the poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect."
Dr. Horace Webster (1794–1871), a United States Military Academy at West Point graduate, was the first president of the Free Academy. On the occasion of The Free Academy's formal opening, January 21, 1849, Webster said:
The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.
A view of the original entrance to Shepard Hall, the main building of the City College of New York, in the early 1900s, on its new campus in Hamilton Heights
, from St. Nicholas Avenue looking up westward to St. Nicholas Terrace
In 1847, a curriculum was adopted which had nine main fields: mathematics, history, language, literature, drawing, natural philosophy, experimental philosophy, law, and political economy. The Academy's first graduation took place in 1853 in Niblo's Garden Theatre, a large theater and opera house on Broadway, near Houston Street at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street.
Even in its early years, the Free Academy showed tolerance for diversity, especially in comparison to its urban neighbor, Columbia College, which was exclusive to the sons of wealthy families. The Free Academy had a framework of tolerance that extended beyond the admission of students from every social stratum. In 1854, Columbia's trustees denied distinguished chemist and scientist Oliver Wolcott Gibbs a faculty position because of Gibbs's Unitarian religious beliefs. Gibbs was a professor and held an appointment at the Free Academy since 1848. (In 1863, Gibbs went on to an appointment at Harvard College, the Rumsford Professorship in Chemistry, where he had a distinguished career. In 1873, he was awarded an honorary degree from Columbia with a unanimous vote by its Trustees with the strong urging of Columbia president Frederick Augustus Porter Barnard.) Later in the history of CCNY, in the early 1900s, President John H. Finley gave the college a more secular orientation by abolishing mandatory chapel attendance. This change occurred at a time when more Jewish students were enrolling in the college.
Late 19th century
Statue of General Alexander S. Webb
(1835–1911), second president of CCNY (1869–1903)
In 1866, the Free Academy, a men's institution, was renamed the "College of the City of New York". In 1929, the College of the City of New York became the "City College of New York". Finally, the institution became known as the "City College of the City University of New York" when the CUNY was formally established as the umbrella institution for New York City's municipal-college system in 1961. The names City College of New York and City College, however, remain in general use.
With the name change in 1866, lavender was chosen as the college's color. In 1867, the academic senate, the first student government in the nation, was formed. Having struggled over the issue for ten years, in 1895, the New York state Legislature voted to let the City College build a new campus. A four-square block site was chosen, located in Manhattanville, within the area which was enclosed by the North Campus Arches; the College, however, quickly expanded north of the Arches.
Like President Webster, the second president of the newly renamed City College was a West Point graduate. The second president, General Alexander S. Webb (1835-1911), assumed office in 1869, serving for almost the next three decades. One of the Union Army's heroes at Gettysburg, General Webb was the commander of the Philadelphia Brigade. In 1891, while still president of the City College, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism at Gettysburg. A full-length statue of Webb, in full military uniform, stands in his honor at the heart of the campus.
College library bookplate
with an early version of the college seal from the era when the institution was named the College of the City of New York, 1866–1929
The college's curriculum under Webster and Webb combined classical training in Latin and Greek with more practical subjects like chemistry, physics, and engineering. One of the outstanding Nineteenth Century graduates of City College was the Brooklyn-born George Washington Goethals, who put himself through the college in three years before going on to West Point. He later became the chief engineer on the Panama Canal project (1903–1914) with one of the excavation cuts named for him. General Webb was succeeded by John Huston Finley (1863–1940), as third president in 1903. Finley relaxed some of the West Point-like discipline that characterized the college, including compulsory religious chapel attendance.
Phi Sigma Kappa placed its sixth oldest chapter on the campus in 1896, flourishing until 1973, and whose alumni still provide scholarships to new students entering the CCNY system.
Delta Sigma Phi was founded at CCNY in 1899 as a social fraternity based on the principle of the brotherhood of man. It was the first national organization of its type to accept members without regard to religion, race, color or creed. The chapter flourished at the college until 1932 when it closed as a result of the Great Depression. The founding of another national fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, took place at City College on December 1898 by Dr. Richard Gottheil who aimed at establishing a Jewish fraternity with Zionist ideals. This chapter, however, has become defunct.
Early 20th century
Education courses were first offered in 1897 in response to a city law that prohibited the hiring of teachers who lacked a proper academic background. The School of Education was established in 1921. The college newspaper, The Campus, published its first issue in 1907, and the first degree-granting evening session in the United States was started.
Separate Schools of Business and Civic Administration and of Technology (Engineering) were established in 1919. Students were also required to sign a loyalty oath. In 1947, the College celebrated its centennial year, awarding honorary degrees to Bernard Baruch (class of 1889) and Robert F. Wagner (class of 1898). A 100-year time capsule was buried in North Campus.
Until 1929, City College had been an all-male institution. During that time, specifically in 1909, the first chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity was founded. In 1930, CCNY admitted women for the first time, but only to graduate programs. In 1951, the entire institution became coeducational.
In the years when top-flight private schools were restricted to the children of the Protestant establishment, thousands of brilliant individuals (including Jewish students) attended City College because they had no other option. CCNY's academic excellence and status as a working-class school earned it the titles "Harvard of the Proletariat", the "poor man's Harvard", and "Harvard-on-the-Hudson".
Even today, after three decades of controversy over its academic standards,Nobel laureates who have studied and graduated with a degree from a particular public college (all graduated between 1935 and 1963). CCNY's official quote on this is "Nine Nobel laureates claim CCNY as their Alma Mater, the most from any public college in the United States." This should not be confused with Nobel laureates who teach at a public university; UC Berkeley boasts 19. Many City College Alumni also served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Second World War (1939/41–1945). A total of 310 CCNY alumni were killed in the War. Prior to World War II, a large number of City College alumni—relative to alumni of other U.S. colleges—volunteered to serve on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939). Thirteen CCNY alumni were killed in Spain.
no other public college has produced as many
In its heyday of the 1930s through the 1950s, CCNY became known for its political radicalism. It was said that the old CCNY cafeteria in the basement of Shepard Hall, particularly in alcove 1, was the only place in the world where a fair debate between Trotskyists and Stalinists could take place. Being part of a political debate that began in the morning in alcove 1, Irving Howe reported that after some time had passed he would leave his place among the arguing students in order to attend class. When he returned to the cafeteria late in the day, he would find that the same debate had continued but with an entirely different cast of students. Alumni who were at City College in the mid-20th century said that City College in those days made the famous radicalism at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s look like a school of conformity.
The municipality of New York was considerably more conformist than CCNY students and faculty. The Philosophy Department, at the end of the 1939/40 academic year, invited the British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell to become a professor at CCNY. Members of the Roman Catholic Church protested Russell's appointment. A woman named Jean Kay filed suit against the state Board of Higher Education to block Russell's appointment on the grounds that his views on marriage and sex would adversely affect her daughter's virtue, although her daughter was not a CCNY student. Russell wrote "a typical American witch-hunt was instituted against me." Kay won the suit, but the Board declined to appeal after considering the political pressure exerted. Also see The Bertrand Russell Case.
Russell took revenge in the preface of the first edition of his book An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth, which was published by the Unwin Brothers in the United Kingdom (the preface was not included in the U.S. editions). In a long précis that detailed Russell's accomplishments including medals awarded by Columbia University and the Royal Society and faculty appointments at Oxford, Cambridge, UCLA, Harvard, the Sorbonne, Peking (the name used in that era), the LSE, Chicago, and so forth, Russell added, "Judicially pronounced unworthy to be Professor of Philosophy at the College of the City of New York."
Late 20th century
In 1945, Professor William E. Knickerbocker, Chairman of the Romance Languages Department, was accused of anti-semitism by four faculty members. They claimed that "for at least seven years they have been subjected to continual harassment and what looks very much like discrimination" by Knickerbocker. Four years later Knickerbocker was again accused of anti-semitism, this time for denying honors to high-achieving Jewish students. About the same time, Professor William C. Davis of the Economics Department was accused by students of maintaining a racially segregated dormitory at Army Hall. Professor Davis was the dormitory's administrator. CCNY students, many of whom were World War II veterans, launched a massive strike in protest against Knickerbocker and Davis. The New York Times called the event "the first general strike at a municipal institution of higher learning." Also see the Knickerbocker Case.
In 1955, a City College student named Alan A. Brown founded the economics honor society, Omicron Chi Epsilon. The purpose of the society was to confer honors on outstanding economics students, organize academic meetings, and publish a journal. In 1963, Omicron Chi Epsilon merged with Omicron Delta Gamma, the other economics honor society, to form Omicron Delta Epsilon, the current academic honor society in economics.
As student radicalism increased in the late 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War feelings increased. culminating at CCNY during a 1969 protest takeover of the South campus, under threat of a riot, African American and Puerto Rican activists and their white Caucasian allies demanded, among other policy changes, that the City College implement an aggressive affirmative action program to increase minority enrollment and provide academic support. At some point, campus protesters began referring to CCNY as "Harlem University." The administration of the City University at first balked at the demands, but instead, came up with an open admissions or open-access program under which any graduate of a New York City high school would be able to matriculate either at City College or another college in the CUNY system. Beginning in 1970, the program opened doors to college to many who would not otherwise have been able to attend college. The increased enrollment of students, regardless of college preparedness, however, challenged City College's and the University's academic reputation and strained New York City's financial resources.
City College began charging tuition in 1976. But after three decades, by 1999, the CUNY Board of Trustees voted to eliminate remedial classes at all CUNYs senior colleges, thereby eliminating a central pillar of the policy of Open Admissions and effectively ending it. Students who could not meet the academic entrance requirements for CUNY's senior colleges were forced to enroll in the system's , where they could prepare for an eventual transfer to one of the 4-year institutions. Since this decision, all CUNY senior colleges, especially CCNY, have begun to rise in prestige nationally, as evinced by school rankings and incoming freshman GPA and SAT scores. In addition, the end of open admissions sparked a change in CUNY's student demographics, with the number of Black and Hispanic students decreasing and the number of White Caucasian and Asian students increasing.
As a result of the 1989 student protests and building takeovers concerning tuition increases, a community action center was opened on the campus called the Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Community and Student Center, located in the NAC building. The center was named after CUNY alums and radical freedom fighters Assata Shakur and
Guillermo Morales, both of whom are now in political exile in Cuba. Students and neighborhood residents who used the Center for community organizing against issues of racism, alleged police brutality, and the privatization and militarization of CUNY faced constant repression or opposition from the City College administration for years. After a long controversy, on October 20, 2013, City College seized the Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Community and Student Center in the middle of the night, provoking a student demonstration.
CCNY's new Frederick Douglass Debate Society defeated
Harvard and Yale at the "Super Bowl" of the American Parliamentary Debate Association in 1996. In 2003, the college's Model UN Team was awarded as an Outstanding Delegation at the National Model United Nations (NMUN) Conference, an honor that it would repeat for four years in a row.
The U.S. Postal Service issued a postcard commemorating CCNY's 150th anniversary, featuring Shepard Hall, on Charter Day, May 7, 1997.
The City University of New York began recruiting students for the University Scholars program in the fall 2000, and admitted the first cohort of undergraduate scholars in the fall 2001. CCNY was one of five CUNY campuses, on which the program was initiated. The newly admitted scholars became undergraduates in the college's newly formed Honors Program. Students attending the CCNY Honors College are awarded free tuition, a cultural passport that admits them to New York City cultural institutions for free or at sharply reduced prices, a notebook computer, and an academic expense account that they can apply to such academic-related activities as study abroad. These undergraduates are also required to attend a number of specially developed honors courses. In 2001 CUNY initiated the CUNY Honors College, renamed Macaulay Honors College in 2007. Both the CCNY Honors Program and the CCNY chapter of the Macaulay Honors College are run out of the CCNY Honors Center.
In October 2005, Dr. Andrew Grove, a 1960 graduate of the Engineering School in Chemical Engineering, and co-founder of Intel Corporation, donated $26 million to the Engineering School, which has since been renamed the Grove School of Engineering. It is the largest donation ever given to the City College of New York.
In August 2008, the authority to grant doctorates in engineering was transferred from the CUNY Graduate Center to City College Grove School of Engineering.
In 2009, the School of Architecture moved into the former Y Building, which was gutted and completely remodeled under the design direction of architect Rafael Viñoly. Also in 2009, school was renamed the
Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture in honor of the $25 million gift the Spitzers gave to the school.
On July 1, 2018, the authority to grant doctorates in clinical psychology was transferred from the CUNY Graduate Center to City College.