History of The Graduate Center

Historic B. Altman building

The historic B. Altman building, current home of The Graduate Center.

“To have become an internationally renowned institution in so brief a period is virtually unprecedented.”

— Former President
     William P. Kelly

The establishment of The Graduate Center in 1961 by the New York State Legislature, itself, had few precedents. This was to be the first publicly supported doctoral program in New York City.

It was a bold move that grew out of the historic commitment to public higher education in New York City, the need to provide advanced education for the growing post-World War II baby boom population, and the mission that defines The Graduate Center — graduate education for the public good.

Portrait of Mina Rees

The Graduate Center's founding dean of graduate studies and first president, Mina Rees.

Mina Rees, The Graduate Center’s founding dean of graduate studies and later its first president, was tasked with developing the model for The Graduate Center. A distinguished mathematician, Rees was a graduate of Hunter College who had been honored for her work as a strategist during World War II. She came to The Graduate Center after directing the mathematics branch of the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research and serving as Hunter’s dean of the faculty.

To harness the strength of CUNY’s senior colleges, Rees adapted the consortial structure of Oxford University in England with its many colleges. Her goal was to build the centralized Ph.D. programs from the “ablest of our faculty, scattered as they were on four geographically separated campuses.”

The Graduate Center started out with fewer than 90 students in just four disciplines: economics, English, chemistry, and psychology. In 1966, the new graduate school expanded to a building on 42nd Street, across from the New York Public Library, and in 1999 The Graduate Center moved to its present campus at 365 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, which was once home to the B. Altman Department Store.


The Graduate Center building at 365 Fifth Avenue; Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) buiding at 85 St. Nicholas Terrace in Harlem.

Today, The Graduate Center educates over 3,500 students taught by more than 130 faculty members appointed to the GC and more than 2,200 faculty from throughout CUNY. It is the home of award-winning faculty and students. With more than 30 doctoral programs and the addition of a growing number of master’s programs in cutting-edge fields; its more than 30 centers, institutes, initiatives; and the innovative Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC), The Graduate Center is one of the leading Ph.D.-granting institutions in the country, educating students of diverse backgrounds from all over the world. Fostering groundbreaking research and preparing students for creative problem-solving, whether it’s for academic careers or for careers outside of academia, The Graduate Center continues to be a trailblazer in graduate education.


Recent Milestones

GC wrought iron motif

GC wrought iron motif

Notable Alumni


Academia and Research

Lisa E. Farrington (Ph.D. ’97, Art History) associate dean of the Division of Fine Arts in the College of Arts and Sciences at Howard University

James Giordano (Ph.D. ’87, Psychology) chief of the neuroethics studies program and scholar-in-residence in the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics; professor in the Departments of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center

Perry N. Halkitis (Ph.D. ’95, Educational Psychology) author, Dean of Rutgers School of Public Health. His research examines the links between the HIV epidemic, drug abuse, and mental health within the LGBTQ community.

Katerina Harvati (Ph.D. ’01, Anthropology) professor and director paleoanthropology at the University of Tübingen, winner of the 2021 Leibniz Prize, considered the most important research funding prize in Germany, for her findings on the evolution of humans and their closest relatives

Dennis C. Liotta (Ph.D. ’74, Chemistry) executive director of Emory Institute for Drug Development and professor at Emory University. He helped develop a component of the combination therapy that is the standard for treating patients with HIV and has been credited with saving and extending many lives.

Linda H. Malkas (Ph.D. ’85, Biochemistry) dean and professor in molecular oncology at City of Hope

Carol Oja (Ph.D. ’85, Music) William Powell Mason Professor of Music at Harvard University; leading musicologist, specializing in American composers of the twentieth century

Nandini Sikand (Ph.D. ’10, Anthropology) professor of film and media studies, Guggenheim awardee

Patricia Stapleton (Ph.D. ’12, Political Science) comparative political science and public policy scholar, Rand Corporation

Patricia Chapple Wright (Ph.D. ’85, Anthropology), professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the director of the Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar, renowned conservationist, primatologist, expert on Madagascar lemurs, MacArthur Fellow

Arts and Culture

Carrie Rebora Barratt (Ph.D. ’90, Art History), first woman to lead The New York Botanical Garden

LeRonn P. Brooks (Ph.D. ’09, Art History), associate curator for Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute, part of the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Deborah Cullen-Morales (Ph.D. ’02, Art History) program officer in the Arts and Cultural Heritage program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Nadiah Rivera Fellah (Ph.D ’19, Art History), associate curator of contemporary art at The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Saisha Grayson (Ph.D. ’18, Art History) curator of time-based media at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Heidi Holder (Ph.D. ’11, Urban Education) the Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chair of Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lavita McMath Turner (Ph.D. ’18, Urban Education) first chief diversity officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Maggie Nelson (Ph.D. ’04, English) MacArthur Fellow, poet, critic, nonfiction writer; professor of English, University of Southern California

Gregory Pardlo (English) poet and writer, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

Jacquelyn Days Serwer (Ph.D. ’81, Art History) chief curator, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Media and Publishing

Andrew Bast (M.A. ’09, Political Science) investigative producer at CBS News, producer at 60 Minutes

LuAnn Walther (Ph.D. ’78, English) senior vice president at Knopf, editorial director for Vintage Books, Anchor Books, and Everyman’s Library

Social Justice, Nonprofit, and Government

Sister Georgianna Glose (Ph.D. ’95, Social Welfare) founder of SNAP, the Strategic Neighborhood Action Partnership; activist nun dedicated to social justice.

Michael P. Jacobson (Ph.D. ’86, Sociology) founder and executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance, former president of the Vera Institute of Justice, former New York City correction commissioner

Daniel R. Porterfield (Ph.D. ’95, English) President and CEO of the Aspen Institute

J. Phillip Thompson (Ph.D. ’90, Political Science) New York City deputy mayor for strategic planning, associate professor of political science and urban planning at MIT

Business and Industry

Karen C. Altfest (Ph.D. ’79, History) Principal Advisor and Executive VP of Client Relations, Altfest Personal Management

Maggie Johnson (Ph.D. ’91, Computer Science) Vice President of Education and University Programs for Google

Alyssa Loorya (Ph.D. ’18, Anthropology) founder and president of Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants

Tiffany Perkins-Munn (Ph.D. ’03, Psychology) global head of decision sciences at BlackRock

Linnaea Tillett (Ph.D. ’00, Environmental Psychology), founder and principal of Tillett Lighting Design Associates