CCNY was the first free public institution of higher education in the United States and also for many years has been considered the flagship campus of the CUNY public university system.
The Free Academy was the first of what would become a system of municipally-supported colleges. Hunter College, the second, was founded as a women's institution in 1870. Brooklyn College, the third, was established as a coeducational institution in 1930.
In 1847, New York State Governor John Young had given permission to the 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, a 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.
In 1851, 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 then wasn't much more than a finishing school for wealthy young gentlemen. 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 Oliver Wolcott Gibbs, a distinguished chemist and scientist, a faculty position because of Gibbs's religious beliefs. He was a Unitarian. Gibbs was a professor and held an appointment at the Free Academy since 1848. (In 1863, Gibbs went on to an appointment at Harvard University, 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 President 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.
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 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 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 (see below).
Like President Webster, the second president of City College was a West Point graduate. The second president, General Alexander S. Webb, assumed office in 1869. One of the Union's heroes at Gettysburg, General Webb was the commander of the Philadelphia Brigade. When the Union Army repulsed the Confederates at Cemetery Hill, General Webb played a central role in the battle. Coddington wrote about Webb's conduct during Pickett's Charge: "Refusing to give up, [Webb] set an example of bravery and undaunted leadership for his men to follow...." In 1891, while still president of City College, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism at Gettysburg.
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. General Webb was succeeded by John Huston Finley in 1903. Finley relaxed some of the West Point-like discipline that characterized the College, including compulsory chapel attendance.
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.
Up until 1929, City College had been an all-male institution; it was in 1930 that CCNY first admitted women, 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 (especially 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, no other public college has produced as many Nobel laureates who have studied and graduated with a degree from a particular public college. 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.
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 UC 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 1939-1940 academic year, invited the British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell to become a professor at CCNY. Members of the Catholic Church protested Russell’s appointment. A woman named Jean Kay filed suit against the 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 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 UK (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.”
Many City College alumni served in the U.S. Armed Forces during the Second World War. A total of 310 CCNY alumni were killed in the War. Prior to World War II, a relatively 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. Thirteen CCNY alumni were killed in Spain.
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.
CCNY is the only team in men's college basketball history to win both the NIT and the NCAA Tournament in the same year, 1950. However, this accomplishment was overshadowed by a point shaving scandal in which seven CCNY basketball players were arrested, in 1951, for taking money from gamblers to affect the outcome of games. The scandal led to the decline of CCNY from a national powerhouse in Division I basketball to a member of Division III and damaged the national profile of college basketball in general.
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.
During a 1969 takeover of South campus, under threat of a riot, African American and Puerto Rican activists and their white allies demanded, among other policy changes, that City College implement an aggressive affirmative action program. 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 program, however, came at the cost of City College's and the University's academic standing as well as New York City's fiscal health.
City College began charging tuition in 1976. By the 1990s CCNY stopped admitting, and offering remedial classes to, students who did not meet its formal entrance requirements. CUNY by then began enrolling these less well prepared students in its community colleges, and not senior colleges such as CCNY.
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. The program was initiated at five CUNY campuses, one of which was CCNY. 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 2007 CUNY initiated the Macauley Honors College. Both the CCNY Honors Program and the CCNY chapter of the Macauley 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 $26,000,000 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.
This new campus was designed by George Browne Post.
According to CCNY's published history, "The Landmark neo-Gothic buildings of the North Campus Quadrangle were designed by the noted architect George Browne Post. They are superb examples of English Perpendicular Gothic style and are among the first buildings, as an entire campus, to be built in the U.S. in this style. Groundbreaking for the Gothic Quadrangle buildings took place in 1903".
The original neo-Gothic buildings on the new upper Manhattan campus were:
Shepard Hall was the largest building and the centerpiece of the campus, and modeled after a Gothic cathedral plan, and whose main entrance was designed to be on St. Nicholas Terrace. It also contained a large cathedral or chapel assembly hall called "The Great Hall".
Harris Hall, named in the original architectural plans as "the Sub-Freshman Building", housed City College's preparatory high school, Townsend Harris High School, from 1906 until it moved in 1930 downtown to the School of Business.
Five of these new Gothic campus buildings opened in 1906. The sixth, Goethals Hall , was completed in 1930. The new building was named for George Washington Goethals, the CCNY civil engineering alumnus who, as mentioned above in the section on the history of the College, went on to become the chief engineer of the Panama Canal. Goethals Hall housed the School of Technology (engineering) and adjoins the Mechanical Arts Building, Compton Hall.
There are six hundred grotesques on the original Gothic buildings made to represent the practical and the fine arts.
The North Campus Quadrangle contains four great arches on the main avenues entering and exiting the campus:
In the early 1900s, after most of the Gothic campus had been built, CCNY President John H. Finley wanted the College to have a stadium because the existing facilities for the College’s athletic teams were inadequate. New York City did not provide the money needed to build a stadium; however, the municipal government donated to the College two city blocks south of the campus. The two block had been open park land. Finley’s wish for a stadium moved forward when businessman and philanthropist Adolph Lewisohn expressed an interest in financing the construction of the stadium. Finley and Lewisohn spoke about the project for the first time in 1912. Lewisohn agreed to donate $75,000 for the stadium’s construction. Finley commissioned the architect Arnold W. Brunner to design Lewisohn Stadium, which was influenced by Finley's memories of a small rock-hewn theatre in the Trastevere section of Rome.
Lewisohn stadium was built as a 6,000-seat stadium, with thousands more seats available on the infield during concerts, and was dedicated on May 29, 1915, two years after Dr. Finley had left his post at the College and Dr. Sidney Edward Mezes had become CCNY's fourth president. The stadium's dedication was enhanced by a performance of "The Trojan Women", produced by Granville Barker and Lillian McCarthy. College graduation services were held in Lewisohn for many years.
A separate library building was not in the original plan for the 1906 campus, so in 1937, a free-standing library was built north of the 140th Street Arches. The Bowker/Alumni Library stood at the present site of the Steinman Engineering building until 1957.
The Hebrew Orphan Asylum was erected in 1884 on Amsterdam Avenue between 136th and 138th Street, and was designed by William H. Hume It was already there when City College moved to upper Manhattan. When it closed in the 1940s, the building was used by City College to house members of the U.S. Armed Forces assigned to the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). From 1946 to 1955, it was used as a dormitory, library, and classroom space for the College. It was called "Army Hall" until it was demolished in 1955 and 1956.
In 1946, on the North Campus, CCNY purchased a former Episcopal orphanage on 135th Street and Covent Avenue, and renamed it Klapper Hall, after Paul Klapper (Class of 1904) Professor and the Dean of School of Education and who was later the first president of Queens College/CUNY (1937-1952). Klapper Hall was red brick in Georgian style and it served until 1983 as home of the School of Education.
Steinman Hall, which houses the School of Engineering, was erected in 1962 on the north end of the campus, on the site of the Bowker Library and the Drill Hall to replace the facilities in Compton Hall and Goethals Hall, and was named for David Barnard Steinman (CCNY Class of 1906), a well known civil engineer and bridge designer.
Also, in 1963, the Administration Building was erected and put in use on the North Campus across from Wingate Hall. It houses the College's administration offices, including the President's and Provost's, and the Registrar's Office. It was originally intended as a warehouse also, housing the huge number of records and transcripts of students since 1847 when the College opened. In early 2007, the Administration Building was formally named The Howard E. Wille Administration Building, in honor of Howard E. Wille, class of 1955, a distinguished alumnus and philanthropist.
In 1971, the Marshak Science Building was built and opened, the former place of the open space known as Jasper Oval and previously an open football field The building was named after a past president of CCNY in the 1970s (1970-1979), Robert Marshak, who was a renowned physicist. The Marshak building houses all science and labs, and also houses and adjoins the Mahoney Gymnasium and athletic facilities including a swimming pool and tennis courts.
In the 1970s, construction of the massive North Academic Center (NAC) was initiated. It was completed in 1984, and replaced Lewisohn Stadium and Klapper Hall. The NAC building houses hundreds of classrooms, two cafeterias, the Cohen Library, student lounges and centers, administrative offices, and a number of computer installations. Designed by architect John Carl Warnecke, the building has received criticism for its lack of design and outsize scale in comparison to the surrounding neighborhood.
Within the NAC, a student lounge space was created outside the campus bookstore, and murals celebrating the history of the campus were painted on the doors of the undergraduate Student Government. Founded in 1869, it claims to be the oldest continuously operating student government organization in the country.
The first floor of the Administration Building was given a postmodern renovation in 2004. The first floor houses the admissions office and the registrar's office. The upper floors house the offices of the president and provost.
The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission made the North Campus Quadrangle buildings and the College Gates official landmarks, both in 1981. The buildings in the Quadrangle were put on the State and National Register of Historic Places in 1984. In the summer of 2006, the historic gates on Convent Avenue were restored.
In 1953, CCNY bought the campus of the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart (which, on a 1913 map, was shown as The Convent of the Sacred Heart), which added a south section to the campus. This expanded the campus to include many of the buildings in the area between 140th Street to 130th Street, from St. Nicholas Terrace in the east to Amsterdam Avenue in the west.
Former buildings of the Manhattanville College campus to be used by CCNY were re-named for City College's purposes: Stieglitz Hall, Downer Hall, Wagner Hall, the prominent Finley Student Center which contained the very active Buttenweiser Lounge, Eisner Hall, Park Gym, Mott Hall, and others.
Generally, the South Campus of CCNY, as a result of this expansion, contained the liberal arts classes and departments of the College. The North Campus, also as a result of this expansion, generally housed classes and departments for the sciences and engineering, as well as Klapper Hall (School of Education), and the Administration Building.
In 1957, a new library building was erected in the middle of the campus, near 135th Street on the South Campus, and named Cohen Library, after Morris Raphael Cohen, an alumnus (Class of 1900) and celebrated professor of the College from 1912 to 1938. The library was moved some decades later to the North Academic Center on the North Campus.
In the 1970s, many of the old buildings of the South Campus were demolished, some which had been used by the Academy of The Sacred Heart. The buildings remaining on the South Campus at this time were the Cohen Library (later moved into the North Academic Center), Park Gym (now the Structural Biology Research Center ), Eisner Hall (built in 1941 by Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart as a library, later remodeled and housed CCNY's Art Department and named for the Chairman of the Board of Higher Education in the 1930s) , the Schiff House (former President's residence, now a child care center), Mott Hall (formerly the English Department, now a New York City Department of Education primary school ).
Some of the buildings which were demolished at that time were Finley Hall (housed The Finley Student Center, student activities center, originally built in 1888-1890 as Manhattanville Academy's main building, and purchased in 1953 by City College) , Wagner Hall (housed various social science and liberal arts departments and classes, originally built as a dormitory for Manhattanville Academy, and was named in honor of Robert F. Wagner Sr., member of the Class of 1898, who represented New York State for 23 years in the United States Senate) , Stieglitz Hall, and Downer Hall, amongst others.
New buildings were erected on the South Campus, including Aaron Davis Hall in 1981, and the Herman Goldman sports field in 1993. In August 2006, for the first time ever in its history, the College completed the construction of a 600-bed dormitory, called "The Towers", and opened it for use. There are plans to rename The Towers after a distinguished alumnus or donor, who has not yet been named.
The building that formerly housed Cohen Library will become the new home for the School of Architecture, with the renovation headed by architect Rafael Viñoly--the Cohen Library moved to the NAC building. Near the 133rd Street gate, a new science building is under construction in order to relieve pressure from Marshak Hall, which had a beam collapse in 2005. Part of this project is the elimination of the Herman Goldman sports field, a controversial move which will dramatically alter the South Campus.