In 1960 John R. Everett became the first Chancellor of the Municipal College System of the City of New York, to be renamed CUNY, for a salary of $25,000 ($212,000 in current dollar terms). CUNY was created in 1961, by New York State legislation, signed into law by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The legislation integrated existing institutions and a new graduate school into a coordinated system of higher education for the city, under the control of the "Board of Higher Education of the City of New York", which had been created by New York State legislation in 1926. By 1979, the Board of Higher Education had become the "Board of Trustees of the CUNY".
The institutions that were merged in order to create CUNY were:
- The Free Academy – Founded in 1847 by Townsend Harris, it was fashioned as "a Free Academy for the purpose of extending the benefits of education gratuitously to persons who have been pupils in the common schools of the city and county of New York." The Free Academy later became the City College of New York.
- The Female Normal and High School – Founded in 1870, and later renamed the Normal College. It would be renamed again in 1914 to Hunter College. During the early 20th century, Hunter College expanded into the Bronx, with what became Herbert Lehman College.
- Brooklyn College – Founded in 1930.
- Queens College – Founded in 1937.
CUNY has served a diverse student body, especially those excluded from or unable to afford private universities. Its four-year colleges offered a high quality, tuition-free education to the poor, the working class and the immigrants of New York City who met the grade requirements for matriculated status. During the post-World War I era, when some Ivy League universities, such as Yale University, discriminated against Jews, many Jewish academics and intellectuals studied and taught at CUNY. The City College of New York developed a reputation of being "the Harvard of the proletariat."
As New York City's population—and public college enrollment—grew during the early 20th century and the city struggled for resources, the municipal colleges slowly began adopting selective tuition, also known as instructional fees, for a handful of courses and programs. During the Great Depression, with funding for the public colleges severely constrained, limits were imposed on the size of the colleges' free Day Session, and tuition was imposed upon students deemed "competent" but not academically qualified for the day program. Most of these "limited matriculation" students enrolled in the Evening Session, and paid tuition. Additionally, as the population of New York grew, CUNY was not able to accommodate the demand for higher education. Higher and higher requirements for admission were imposed; in 1965, a student seeking admission to CCNY needed an average of 92, or A-. This helped to ensure that the student population of CUNY remained largely white and middle-class.
Demand in the United States for higher education rapidly grew after World War II, and during the mid-1940s a movement began to create to provide accessible education and training. In New York City, however, the community-college movement was constrained by many factors including "financial problems, narrow perceptions of responsibility, organizational weaknesses, adverse political factors, and other competing priorities."
Community colleges would have drawn from the same city coffers that were funding the senior colleges, and city higher education officials were of the view that the state should finance them. It wasn't until 1955, under a shared-funding arrangement with New York State, that New York City established its first community college, on Staten Island. Unlike the day college students attending the city's public baccalaureate colleges for free, the community college students had to pay tuition fees under the state-city funding formula. Community college students paid tuition fees for approximately 10 years.
Over time, tuition fees for limited-matriculated students became an important source of system revenues. In fall 1957, for example, nearly 36,000 attended Hunter, Brooklyn, Queens and City Colleges for free, but another 24,000 paid tuition fees of up to $300 a year – the equivalent of $2,413 in 2011. Undergraduate tuition and other student fees in 1957 comprised 17 percent of the colleges' $46.8 million in revenues, about $7.74 million — a figure equivalent to $62.4 million in 2011 buying power.
Three community colleges had been established by early 1961, when New York City's public colleges were codified by the state as a single university with a chancellor at the helm and an infusion of state funds. But the city's slowness in creating the community colleges as demand for college seats was intensifying, had resulted in mounting frustration, particularly on the part of minorities, that college opportunities were not available to them.
In 1964, as New York City's Board of Higher Education moved to take full responsibility for the community colleges, city officials extended the senior colleges' free tuition policy to them, a change that was included by Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. in his budget plans and took effect with the 1964–65 academic year.
Calls for greater access to public higher education from the Black and Puerto Rican communities in New York, especially in Brooklyn, led to the founding of "Community College Number 7," later Medgar Evers College, in 1966-1967. In 1969, a group of Black and Puerto Rican students occupied City College demanding the racial integration of CUNY, which at the time had an overwhelmingly white student body.
Students at some campuses became increasingly frustrated with the university's and Board of Higher Education's handling of university administration. At Baruch College in 1967, over a thousand students protested the plan to make the college an upper-division school limited to junior, senior, and graduate students. At Brooklyn College in 1968, students attempted a sit-in to demand the admission of more black and Puerto Rican students and additional black studies curriculum. Students at Hunter College also demanded a Black studies program. Members of the SEEK program, which provided academic support for underprepared and underprivileged students, staged a building takeover at Queens College in 1969 to protest the decisions of the program's director, who would later be replaced by a black professor. Puerto Rican students at filed a report with the New York State Division of Human Rights in 1970, contending that the intellectual level of the college was inferior and discriminatory. Hunter College was crippled for several days by a protest of 2,000 students who had a list of demands focusing on more student representation in college administration. Across CUNY, students boycotted their campuses in 1970 to protest a rise in student fees and other issues, including the proposed (and later implemented) open admissions plan.
Like many college campuses in 1970, CUNY faced a number of protests and demonstrations after the Kent State shootings and Cambodian Campaign. The Administrative Council of the City University of New York sent U.S. President Richard Nixon a telegram in 1970 stating, "No nation can long endure the alienation of the best of its young people." Some colleges, including John Jay College of Criminal Justice, historically the "college for cops," held teach-ins in addition to student and faculty protests.
Under pressure from community activists and CUNY Chancellor Albert Bowker, the Board of Higher Education (BHE) approved an Open Admissions plan in 1966, but it was not scheduled to be fully implemented until 1975. However, in 1969, students and faculty across CUNY participated in rallies, student strikes, and class boycotts demanding an end to CUNY's restrictive admissions policies. CUNY administrators and Mayor John Lindsay expressed support for these demands, and the BHE voted to implement the plan immediately in the fall of 1970.
The doors to CUNY were opened wide to all those demanding entrance, assuring all high school graduates entrance to the university without having to fulfill traditional requirements such as exams or grades. This policy was known as open admissions and nearly doubled the number of students enrolling in the CUNY system to 35,000 (compared to 20,000 the year before). With greater numbers came more diversity: Black and Hispanic student enrollment increased threefold. Remedial education, to supplement the training of under-prepared students, became a significant part of CUNY's offerings.
Additionally, ethnic and Black Studies programs and centers were instituted on many CUNY campuses, contributing to the growth of similar programs nationwide.
However, retention of students in CUNY during this period was low, with two-thirds of students enrolled in the early 1970s leaving within four years without graduating. Robert Kibbee was Chancellor of the City University of New York, the third-largest university in the United States, from 1971 to 1982.
Financial crisis of 1976
In fall 1976, during New York City's fiscal crisis, the free tuition policy was discontinued under pressure from the federal government, the financial community that had a role in rescuing the city from bankruptcy, and New York State, which would take over the funding of CUNY's senior colleges. Tuition, which had been in place in the State University of New York system since 1963, was instituted at all CUNY colleges.
Meanwhile, CUNY students were added to the state's need-based Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), which had been created to help private colleges. Full-time students who met the income eligibility criteria were permitted to receive TAP, ensuring for the first time that financial hardship would deprive no CUNY student of a college education. Within a few years, the federal government would create its own need-based program, known as Pell Grants, providing the neediest students with a tuition-free college education. Joseph S. Murphy was Chancellor of the City University of New York from 1982 to 1990, when he resigned. CUNY at the time was the third-largest university in the United States, with over 180,000 students.
By 2011, nearly six of ten full- time undergraduates qualified for a tuition-free education at CUNY due in large measure to state, federal and CUNY financial aid programs. CUNY's enrollment dipped after tuition was re-established, and there were further enrollment declines through the 1980s and into the 1990s.
Financial crisis of 1995
In 1995, CUNY suffered another fiscal crisis when Governor George Pataki proposed a drastic cut in state financing. Faculty cancelled classes and students staged protests. By May, CUNY adopted deep cuts to college budgets and class offerings. By June, in order to save money spent on remedial programs, CUNY adopted a stricter admissions policy for its senior colleges: students deemed unprepared for college would not be admitted, this a departure from the 1970 Open Admissions program. That year's final state budget cut funding by $102 million, which CUNY absorbed by increasing tuition by $750 and offering a retirement incentive plan for faculty.
In 1999, a task force appointed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani issued a report that described CUNY as "an institution adrift" and called for an improved, more cohesive university structure and management, as well as more consistent academic standards. Following the report, Matthew Goldstein, a mathematician and City College graduate who had led CUNY's Baruch College and briefly, Adelphi University, was appointed chancellor. CUNY ended its policy of open admissions to its four-year colleges, raised its admissions standards at its most selective four-year colleges (Baruch, Brooklyn, City, Hunter and Queens), and required new enrollees who needed remediation, to begin their studies at a CUNY open-admissions community college.
CUNY's enrollment of degree-credit students reached 220,727 in 2005 and 262,321 in 2010 as the university broadened its academic offerings. The university added more than 2,000 full-time faculty positions, opened new schools and programs, and expanded the university's fundraising efforts to help pay for them. Fundraising increased from $35 million in 2000 to more than $200 million in 2012.
As of Autumn 2013, all CUNY undergraduates are required to take an administration-dictated common core of courses which have been claimed to meet specific "learning outcomes" or standards. Since the courses are accepted university-wide, the administration claims it will be easier for students to transfer course credits between CUNY colleges. It also reduced the number of core courses some CUNY colleges had required, to a level below national norms, particularly in the sciences. The program is the target of several lawsuits by students and faculty, and was the subject of a "no confidence" vote by the faculty, who rejected it by an overwhelming 92% margin.
Chancellor Goldstein retired on July 1, 2013, and was replaced on June 1, 2014 by James Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska, and a graduate of the University of Nebraska and New York University Law School. Milliken is retiring at the end of the 2017-18 academic year and a search for a replacement was underway as of February 2018 .
In 2018, CUNY opened its 25th campus, the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, named after former president Joseph S. Murphy and combining some forms and functions of the Murphy Institute that were housed at the CUNY School of Professional Studies.
On February 13, 2019, the Board of Trustees voted to appoint Queens College President Felix V. Matos Rodriguez as the chancellor of the City University of New York. Matos became both the first Latino and minority educator to head the University. He assumed the post May 1.