Convocation 2015 Address by President Robinson

It’s a great pleasure to join you today.
Creating community in New York City is difficult, what with its scale, stresses, and distractions. And it’s doubly difficult in an institution devoted mainly to Ph.D. education—that marathon of perseverance, which requires a singular commitment to secure the individual achievement that’s the degree. So I think it’s all the more important that we pause not just to commemorate, as we do so well at Commencement, but also to consider our common project. Because Convocation marks the beginning of the academic year, it’s an especially opportune moment to remind ourselves of how and why we’re a community.
Now some of you are new to Ph.D. education, to the Graduate Center and to the City University of New York. All of you are students, faculty, staff, or friends. What I will do today is to reflect, both historically and normatively, on how these three—Ph.D. education, the Graduate Center, and CUNY—are related.
It’s not obvious. And we shouldn’t take for granted the history, the habits of mind, or the administrative routines that make a day like this possible—indeed, that make everything we do possible. As paradoxical as it may sound, although our beginnings were highly contingent, they framed not only how we came about as an institution, but also, I think, what we must be as an institution.
The Ph.D. in its modern sense is an invention of the 19th century, American universities following a German lead. A Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was established at Yale in 1847, and 14 years later, it awarded the first Ph.D. in the United States. As it happens, 1847 also witnessed the founding of the Free Academy of New York—that is, the future City College. But it wasn’t until 1965 that CUNY would award its first Ph.D.—two, in fact.
What’s striking about 1847 is not so much the coincidence of date. It’s this: for America’s oldest colleges and universities, the Ph.D. came a century, or a century and a half, or even two centuries after their founding. In CUNY’s case, Ph.D.-granting authority was a catalyst in transforming discrete colleges into a university. For all intents and purposes, CUNY wasn’t CUNY until it began to offer the Ph.D.
Allow me to explain this in a bit more detail.

As we know it now, public higher education in New York State can be traced back to recommendations made in 1960 in what’s known as the Heald Report. Drawing some unflattering comparisons with California, Michigan and some other states, the report proposed that public higher education should—and here I quote—‘cease to be a limping and apologetic enterprise’.
Much of the report’s attention focused on the State University, which was to undergo major expansion; and much of the reaction was driven by opposition to its proposal that students pay $300 in tuition, means tested, at what were then known as the ‘municipal colleges’—City, Hunter, Brooklyn, and Queens.
Now, tuition would come to SUNY (in 1961) and also to CUNY (in 1976). What came altogether sooner was CUNY itself—and this as a direct result of the Heald Committee, which was extending the reach of the governor, Nelson Rockefeller, into public higher education. This is because the report recommended the creation of an integrated higher education system for the New York City. And that university system, it argued, should award doctorates.
So in April of 1961, the City University of New York was created by state law. In September of the same year, Mina Rees became CUNY’s ‘Dean of Graduate Studies’; a mathematician, now she’s known as the first president of the Graduate Center. In October, the Board of Regents approved the University’s authority to offer the Ph.D. And in the fall of 1962, four doctoral programs, with a grand total of 85 students, were launched.
Of course, the early 1960s were a time of generous public investment in education, driven by demography (the post-war Baby Boom), an exploding economy, a burgeoning state, and Cold War politics. The growth here in New York was spectacular. As our own Tahir Butt has written, between 1959 and 1973, SUNY went from 46 colleges and 41,000 students to 64 colleges and over 350,000 students. CUNY went from seven colleges and 85,000 to 20 colleges and 250,000 students. Doctoral education at the Graduate Center tracks this growth. Programs were added incrementally, and, in the Cold War context, at first they were dominated by the sciences and harder social sciences: of the first nine programs established, only English and History were the exceptions.
We started with those four programs and 85 students in 1962; a decade later, there were 26 programs with an enrollment of 2500 students. Five hundred Ph.D.s had already been awarded.
I’d like to emphasize two points about the birth of CUNY and the Graduate Center.

The first is how contentious it was. The Heald Report provided a framework for change, but effecting that change had much to do with the leadership of Albert Bowker, who was Chancellor of CUNY from 1963 to 1971. It was Bowker who provided the muscle necessary to overcome opposition to the idea of an integrated City university, especially one that was to offer Ph.D.s. This opposition, perhaps predictably, came from the City’s private doctoral institutions. But some also came from the colleges that would constitute CUNY itself.
There was also a fierce battle for control of the colleges. It was between the nascent chancellery and long-powerful Board of Higher Education, the predecessor to the current CUNY Board of Trustees. Bowker’s predecessor, John Rutherford Everett, had resigned in frustration two years into his tenure, and Bowker himself (joined by several colleagues) did the same in November of 1965. When he returned shortly later to the position, the Chancellery emerged with much more power.
The second point that deserves emphasis, closely related, is this: the CUNY model—marked by a strong Chancellery, which centralizes funding and governance, and a Graduate Center, which delivers Ph.D. degrees through a consortium of faculty drawn from the colleges—was far from inevitable.
High-quality, metropolitan public higher education, as both the University of Paris and the University of London illustrate, can take different forms. For instance, it can be shaped into a federal system of autonomous and loosely coordinated institutions. The University of London consists of 17 colleges, in addition to a number of research institutes. These colleges are financially independent and self-governing; and many offer their own Ph.D.s.
In other words, a different political culture might well have produced a different set of results: those municipal colleges—Hunter, City, Brooklyn, and Queens—they could have become universities in their own right. In fact, in 1959 an alternative plan for a city system was written by a committee convened by the Board of Higher Education, and this plan proposed that City College be the focus of graduate studies.
What lessons do I draw from this history? One is that we are the beneficiaries of a model that prevailed not just because it was inspired and so ably championed, but because it reflected a particular convergence of City, State, and national forces. As beneficiaries, we must resist the temptation to see the Graduate Center merely as an administrative given, or an efficient financial model. Or, for that matter, even a clever concentration of faculty expertise that would otherwise be distributed across the five boroughs.
It’s all those—but much more.
In retrospect, the consortium that was the genius of our framers institutionalized a compact. That compact is between those of us devoted wholly to doctoral education and advanced learning, and those on the campuses who balance commitments to undergraduate teaching, graduate training and research.
To my thinking, that compact is an enormous asset. I believe that what sets the Graduate Center apart from other institutions is not the reputation of our faculty, our commitment to student support, the quality of our academic programs, or even our location in New York City. There are many large graduate schools whose excellent faculty deliver exemplary training to talented Ph.D. students. As it happens, two are located here in New York City.
What sets the Graduate Center apart is that compact.

It’s because of that compact that we can draw upon the extraordinary talents of campus faculty, who carry out about 75 percent of all the teaching, supervision, and leadership—that is, the core activities that constitute our Ph.D. programs.

It’s because of the compact that our research centers, institutes and initiatives are the vibrant intellectual hubs that they are. To take a single example: in the three years since its founding, the Advanced Research Collaborative has granted full-year or full-semester releases to some 26 campus-based faculty. I know of nothing like its diverse, publicly engaged community of CUNY faculty, students, and academic visitors.

It’s also because of that compact that our students reach so many CUNY undergraduates—nearly 200,000 every year.

These teaching opportunities have a double significance. For one thing, our students gain experience as teachers, educators, and communicators. Teaching is crucial to doctoral training, of course, which is why we’ve established a Center for Teaching and Learning here at the Graduate Center.
There’s another reason why that teaching is so important. Our students transmit the ideas of the graduate seminar into thousands of undergraduate classrooms, and this means that they activate the extraordinary human capital that is the CUNY student body. Some 170,000 CUNY students—over 58 percent of that student body—receive federal and state aid on the basis of financial need.
There is no other graduate school in the country that takes more seriously its public responsibilities, or generates more equity. We already do this well—and we’re going to do it even better. I’m very pleased to report that the Mellon Foundation has just awarded the Graduate Center a $3.1 million grant to establish a Humanities Teaching and Learning Alliance with LaGuardia Community College. Our partners at the Mellon as are excited as we are about this important and innovative partnership.

Finally, it’s because of the compact that our programs draw from the diverse and talented pool that is CUNY. Twenty-five percent of our doctoral students come from abroad (some 50 countries), and another 25 percent come from some 32 US states. But a full 20 percent of our students have CUNY undergraduate degrees.

In sum, the Graduate Center is a distinct institution, but it’s also a powerful site in the CUNY system: it’s a place where knowledge is created and critiqued, and it’s a vector that delivers research and scholarship to the campuses, the City, and beyond. This is how we redeem the investments that were made decades ago. We’re a public university because we receive public funding, but also because we’re committed to research and teaching—the very best research and teaching—as a public good.
It’s both regrettable and demonstrably true that much of elite higher education is now seen as an exercise in the concentration and reproduction of privilege. In fact, the criticisms are now so sharp, and the doubts so fundamental, that questions rarely if ever posed a few years ago—about tax-exempt status, for example, and mandating the distribution of endowment incomes—have become commonplace.
At CUNY and the Graduate Center, we need have no doubts about the purpose of our project. Here at 365 Fifth Avenue, we’re fortunate to have a glorious building, the better part of a city block, handsome and stately. What it doesn’t have is a tower, ivory or otherwise. Our location, equidistant between Penn Station and Grand Central, once belonged to a department store, which retailed goods to the city and suburbs. Our departments—our programs—trade in new ideas, models, discoveries, and solutions. We may create or hone them, but we certainly don’t sell them; we share them with the public.

Our location reflects our mission. To track down a book, you can walk to the New York Public Library, or, if it’s raining, take the M train. To track down an artifact or consult an archive, you can take the 6 to the Metropolitan Museum or, with a transfer, the 3 to Lincoln Center. But—and this is just as important--you can also take the M to LaGuardia in Queens, or 6 to the CUNY School of Public Health in East Harlem, or the 3 to Brownsville, in Brooklyn, where our faculty have done important work with local communities.

Again, we need have no doubts about the purpose of our project. We participate in the genuinely ennobling project of educating those privileged not by wealth, but by talent, ambition, curiosity, and grit. The work can be hard, but it’s eased by that sense of community and common purpose, with which I began. And its reward is great: the satisfaction that comes from nothing less than improving the terms of the American social contract.
I wish you all a rewarding and productive academic year.

Submitted on: SEP 24, 2015

Category: President's Office - Archive