Fifty Years at the Center Book
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Benefit Concert
: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, April 19, 2012


50th Anniversary: Looking Back



“We are here to remember the great scholars of our past that set us on the path of scholarly achievement,” proclaimed President William P. Kelly in Elebash Recital Hall on October 25 before introducing seven current faculty members who, one at a time, took to the stage to pay tribute to a well-known predecessor. David Nasaw, the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of American History, reminisced about the “little bespectacled bow-tied smiling man” after whom his chair is named; Joan Richardson (Prof., GC, Comparative Literature, English, Liberal Studies) shared memories of the influential American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin; Allan Atlas (Dist. Prof., Brooklyn, Music) spoke eloquently of Barry S. Brook, founder of both the GC’s music program and RILM, the first international bibliography of music scholarship; Jane Schneider (Prof. Emerita, GC, Anthropology) recalled the work of anthropologist Eric R. Wolf; Mary Ann Caws (Dist. Prof., GC, Comparative Literature) honored the memory of Martinican writer, poet, and literary critic Edouard Glissant; Wayne Koestenbaum (Dist. Prof., GC, English) shared his admiration for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a leader in queer studies; and finally William Kornblum (Prof., GC, Psychology, Sociology) paid due respect to the great American literary and social critic Irving Howe. Read more


*Excerpted from Fifty Years at the Center      Download the book (PDF)

It is the fulfillment of a dream, set in stone in midtown Manhattan. It is the final installment of a pledge from the mid-nineteenth century that higher education would “open the doors to all” and “let the children of the rich and poor take seats together and know no distinctions save that of industry, good conduct, and intellect.” It is the culmination of a vision that the advantages of advanced scholarship would enrich a city and its citizens, through both the cultivation of individual minds and the application of knowledge for social betterment. It is a world leader in doctoral training. It is the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York.

Since its creation fifty years ago, the Graduate Center has housed many missions. Its official mission, of course, is to train the scholars of the future by preparing them for the Ph.D. degree and to enable research and the advancement of learning by the scholars of the present, its faculty. However, the Graduate Center has always represented something more than book learning. Its identity and tradition are inextricably connected to its position as a public university in America’s metropolis. The stirring call to “open the doors,” uttered by the New York merchant Townsend Harris, that led to the founding in 1847 of the Free Academy—the institution that metamorphosed into City College and eventually into CUNY—remains the touchstone throughout the system, as true for the Graduate Center as for the community colleges. The depth and range of this commitment is reflected in the words of the four men and women who have served as presidents of the Graduate Center during its first half-century.

“CUNY is a mission-driven institution,” says William P. Kelly, the current president of the Graduate Center. “We are committed to the American dream.”

“I came from a family that lived through most of the Great Depression. We never made it economically,” the GC’s second president, Harold M. Proshansky, once recalled. “Were it not for City College, my whole life might have been different. In my experiences—and I’ve taught at many places—I have seen examples of thousands of people who had nothing, and who came either to one of the CUNY colleges or to the Graduate School or both and who suddenly became part of the work force of people of commitment and ability. Without the City University, God knows what would have happened.”

Frances Degen Horowitz, Proshansky’s successor, declared, “A democratic society is more dependent on an educated public than any other form of government. That’s why public education is so critical to the future of our society.

“I’m very committed to public education as a major force in this country,” she added. “The only solution to our problems is education—money alone won’t solve them.”

 As Horowitz also noted, “New York is where the reality is. It’s where all the problems of our society exist in the largest dimensions. Being part of the effort to bring education to bear on those issues is very exciting prospect.” The “ivory tower” of the Graduate Center has always been located in the grit, grime, and noise of midtown Manhattan, a barbaric yawp that the faculty and students have set to melody.

“It is my firm belief,” Proshansky once said, “that a public graduate school should be committed to providing service to the New York City community by way of research, consultation, and teaching.” The Center began by granting degrees in the classical disciplines: chemistry, economics, English, and psychology. Today, it ranges over thirty-four subject areas, including on-the-ground fields like urban education, physical therapy, and nursing.

The Graduate Center was created in hopes that it would provide teachers for the Baby Boom children growing up in the sixties. It has evolved into an institution that uses New York City as a laboratory and a client; it studies the urban scene and puts its knowledge to practical use, both as an adviser to government and as an intellectual emporium for the general public.

“I feel very strongly that public education has a different mission than private education,” says Kelly. “CUNY has a public mission to be responsive to the people of New York.”

It has been a delicate balance between the rigors of intellectual pursuit and the needs of the surrounding society. Perhaps the most significant triumph of the Graduate Center’s first fifty years has been its devotion to scholarly integrity. Never has it wavered in its belief that its truest service would be achieved through adherence to the highest standards. It never has seen itself as the vocational training ground for the children of the poor; rather, the Graduate Center has committed itself to serving as the escalator for the talented. In the words of its founding president, Mina Rees: “Education is not designed to prepare people to do whatever work flows from the blind and predestined imperative of technology; rather, it is intended to educate people of vision and sensitivity, who will be motivated to direct technology into humanly constructive channels.”

From its inception Rees insisted that the Graduate Center draw upon the best the CUNY system had to offer. She devised a unique system of faculty procurement that mixed and matched components from the entire university to create a graduate program that, with astonishing rapidity, won recognition as one of the finest in the country. (“I never cease to experience a little thrill,” Rees once commented, “when I am attending a national educational or scientific meeting to find that the CUNY Graduate School is so highly regarded.”)

Her legacy was a rigorous dedication to accomplishment. Rees’s success was the creation of a place and atmosphere whose quality might be best measured not in the repeated encomia of evaluation committees or placement on “Ten Best” lists, but rather in her assessment of her tenure as president, one whose spirit has been echoed by those who followed her: “I have had the rare privilege of working with people whom I greatly respect and enjoy.”