Shepard Hall, Copyright Gigi Altarejos
The Free Academy of the City of New York was founded by Townsend Harris in 1847. Mr. Harris, president of the city’s Board of Education, wanted the many (male) proletarians of the city to receive a top-notch education equal to that of any guaranteed those born with diamond-encrusted silver spoons in their mouths.
Students were admitted based on academic merit, not family money and reputation. This academy was the very first free public college in the U.S., which enabled generations of poor and proletarian people to receive a higher education and thus a chance to advance themselves.
In an era of numerus clausus, discriminatory quotas, and exclusionary attitudes, the Free Academy attracted the kind of students rejected by many other schools—Jews, immigrants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, the working-class, African–Americans, Hispanics, eventually women.
Baskerville Hall, Copyright Tomhenning
The inaugural class graduated in 1853 at the second incarnation of Niblo’s Garden Theatre (later destroyed by another fire before being razed to build an office in 1895). In striking contrast to nearby Columbia University, the Free Academy was very welcoming of all kinds of people from the jump. They educated everyone, not just white Protestant men with Western European ancestry and lots of money.
The Free Academy extended this commitment to diversity in its faculty as well. Many of their greatest professors were rejected or fired by Columbia and similar schools for their politics and religious views.
In 1866, the Free Academy was renamed the College of the City of New York, and lavender was chosen as the school color. The next year, an academic senate, the very first in the U.S., was created.
In 1895, the State Legislature voted to allow them to build a new campus, something they’d been advocating for the last decade. This new campus was in Manhattanville, part of West Harlem. Originally, the school was in Gramercy Park.
Another first came in 1899 with the founding of Delta Sigma Phi, the very first fraternity which didn’t discriminate on the basis of class, race, religion, or color. Sadly, this popular, successful chapter was forced to close in 1932 due to financial strains from the Great Depression.
Another frat, Zeta Beta Tau, was formed 29 December 1898. This was the very first Jewish frat in the U.S., and originally a Zionist youth organisation. Though this frat’s CCNY chapter also later went defunct, there are currently eight frats and four sororities at the college.
In 1897, education courses were introduced in response to a law prohibiting the hiring of teachers without an academic background. The School of Education was created in 1921.
Under third president John Husten Finley, the school took on a more secular, relaxed character. Compulsory chapel attendance and West Point-like discipline were discontinued.
The school’s newspaper, The Campus, published its first issue on 30 September 1907. Many famous future journalists began their careers with that paper.
In 1919, the college added schools of business and civic administration, and technology (i.e., engineering).
A 100-year time capsule was buried in their centennial year of 1947.
Copyright Ajay Suresh
In 1929, the school was renamed again, as the City College of New York. The next year, women were finally admitted, but only as grad students. Only in autumn 1951 did the school become fully co-ed.
Particularly during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, City College was well-known for its political radicalism, serving as a safe haven for people viewed with suspicion or outright blacklisted and persecuted at many other schools. Alumni from that era say it made the 1960s radicalism of UC–Berkeley look like conformity.
The old cafeteria in the Shepard Hall cellar was reported as the only place in the world where a fair debate between Trotskyites and Stalinists could take place. One could step away from a debate to attend classes and return to find the same debate still going with different students. (But seriously, who in their right mind would defend Stalin?!)
City College earned the nicknames Harvard-on-the-Hudson, the poor man’s Harvard, and Harvard of the Proletariat. Another borough over, the also-free Brooklyn College had similar nicknames. These public city schools were the only options for many brilliant students without much money or status quo backgrounds.
Sadly, the school was forced to adopt open admissions in 1970. Though it gave more people a chance to attend college, it also severely strained resources and hurt the school’s formerly brilliant academic reputation. Open admissions students weren’t always well-prepared for collegiate studies.
In 1976, after the city narrowly escaped bankruptcy, CUNY schools had no choice but to start charging tuition.
Since ending remedial CUNY classes in 1999, City College has begun regaining its prestige. Underprepared open admissions students now must attend community college before qualifying for transfer to a four-year school.
Over the years, City College has produced twelve Nobel laureates, and many winners of other prizes and medals. They’ve produced countless famous alumni in a wide variety of fields—art, literature, medicine, psychology, science, business, politics, history, sports, technology.
Many of my characters have attended City College.