Why the history of CUNY matters: using the CUNY Digital History Archive to teach CUNY's past.

Author:Brier, Stephen
Position:Teaching Critical University Studies

The CUNY Digital History Archive

Consonant with the theme of this issue of Radical Teacher, this essay will indicate some of the ways various historical sources contained in the CUNY Digital History Archive (CDHA) (1) might be utilized by teachers and students to help them undertake critical study of the history of their own college or university system. In 2013, a group of City University of New York (CUNY) faculty, staff, librarians, digital producers, historians, and students met to consider how to study, collect and preserve CUNY's history. The American Social History Project provided an institutional home for CDHA, with Andrea Vasquez serving as Project Director; I serve as Project Historian. (2) Our goal was to create a publicly accessible resource that could help convey the rich history of the largest urban public university in the country (and the third largest public university system in the United States). Four years later it has become a robust and growing digital archive that contains more than 450 discrete items and a dozen collections. Scores of contributors, curators, archivists, retirees, and CUNY librarians as well as students from the Graduate Center's programs and the Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information studies have made up the ever-widening group working on CDHA.

The CDHA is designed as an open, participatory digital public archive and portal that gives the CUNY community and the broader public online access to digitized archival materials related to the long and consequential history of what became the City University of New York. It can be approached in several ways, including chronologically, institutionally via specific collections, and thematically. Over the past three years we have worked to create and contextualize a range of documents and collections on topics as diverse as:

* the free speech struggles at CCNY in the 1930s;

* the evolution of the free tuition policy at the municipal colleges and, after 1961, at CUNY, and the relationship of free tuition to the demographics of student admissions at CUNY in the 1960s;

* the battle for Open Admissions across CUNY in 1969-70;

* the creation and survival of new CUNY colleges (e.g., Medgar Evers and Hostos colleges);

* the rise of the Women's Studies program at Brooklyn College in the 1970s;

* academic unionization efforts; and

* ongoing student activism to fight state budget cuts.

We believe that open and flexible online access to materials that document the history of CUNY--including collections only available on the CDHA site as well as digital links to existing online resources and collections held at several CUNY libraries and archives--provides teachers, students, researchers, and the public with a vital resource. The archive makes possible an examination of the larger meaning of the City University's history in the context of the history of the city, state, and nation and can also be used creatively in classrooms to teach various aspects of CUNY's past. In addition, the CDHA team plans to ask teachers, students, and researchers to participate in and curate the ongoing development and production of new collections and historical resources that can be used to integrate CUNY's history into a range of social science and humanities courses taught across CUNY at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. (3)

In what follows I will explore some of the rich history of NYC's public colleges and the special contribution that CUNY has made over the past half century to the development of democratic and open pedagogy in higher education. (4) I will highlight several examples of collections and resources currently available in the CDHA archive and portal that either have been or can be used by teachers and students interested in learning more about CUNY's history and its connection to contemporary issues in public higher education. I will also briefly describe several innovative digital programs and initiatives that have helped catapult CUNY to the forefront of the development of digital and open pedagogy in higher education nationally and even internationally over the past half dozen years.

The History of New York City's Municipal Colleges

A dozen years before the Civil War the city of New York made a singular educational and political commitment. Its citizens embraced the concept of public, tuition-free, and municipal taxpayer-supported higher education. Approved overwhelmingly by a referendum of city voters, the Free Academy, initially a preparatory high school, opened its downtown Manhattan campus in 1847; the Free Academy changed its name to The College of the City of New York (familiarly known as CCNY) in 1866. Its mission, in the words of its first president, Horace Webster, was simply stated in 1849:

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. (5)

The children of the whole people for most of CCNY's first century were almost exclusively white middle-class and working-class young men. They were drawn in the school's first half century from the city's public schools in older immigrant neighborhoods, especially the German and Irish ones, as well as areas of the city where native-born New Yorkers resided. The direct link between the city's public schools and its municipal colleges was therefore established at the outset and the two systems' fates remained wholly intertwined: how well CUNY undergraduates did and continue to do in college was and remains in the present closely tied to the quality of the primary and secondary school education they received in the New York City public schools. City College was joined in 1870 by the Normal College of the City of New York (Hunter College after 1914), which educated, also tuition free, young women to become teachers in the city's public schools.

New York City's dramatic population growth and ethnic transformation beginning in the late 19th century (especially the huge influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe) changed the demographic characteristics of the student body in CCNY and Hunter and pushed the city's Board of Higher Education (established by the state legislature in 1926 to govern the two municipal colleges) to expand beyond its two Manhattan-based campuses. New four-year colleges were approved by the state legislature and launched in Brooklyn in 1930 and Queens in 1937.

The city government continued to make a substantial and sustained investment of municipal tax dollars in its public higher education system in the decades prior to World War II, paying more than 90 percent of the system's total operating costs out of the city's tax coffers. Beginning in the 1930s the four tuition-free senior college campuses now admitted young men and women together, almost all of whom were white. Admission to the municipal colleges was based on high school class rankings and grades and remained tuition free for full-time day students (part-time and evening students paid tuition). That meritocratic system would face significant demographic, financial, and political challenges, however, in the post-World War II era.

The postwar years witnessed an...

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