60 Years at the Graduate Center

September 1, 2021

GC 60th Celebration - GC Graduate at Commencement Ceremony

The Graduate Center, conceived to offer rigorous, research-based doctoral education to students of all backgrounds, has triumphed against great odds. When it started in 1961, it was the first publicly supported doctoral education program in New York City. It is still the only graduate program in New York City that is a consortium, drawing faculty from the many campuses of The City University of New York. 

The Graduate Center offered four degrees when it opened and now offers nearly 60 Ph.D. and master’s degrees to diverse students from throughout New York City and around the world. This timeline gives a sense of how the Graduate Center evolved and continues to adapt to meet the changing needs of the students and city it serves.


Mina Rees
Mina Rees, founding dean and later first president of the Graduate Center

In April, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed legislation creating The City University of New York, or CUNY. The legislature also endorsed the Board of Higher Education’s recommendation that the new institution be given authority to grant doctoral and postgraduate professional degrees. The state Board of Regents took the next step in October when it authorized CUNY to confer the Ph.D. degree.

On September 1, CUNY’s Graduate Division comes into existence when its first dean, mathematician Mina Rees, reported to work. Rees had worked for the U.S. government during World War II using math to put planes in the air.“I confronted the realities I had to face,” she recalled. “Not a student in sight. No secretary. Nothing!” She turned to colleagues in Oxford and Cambridge for models of a consortium-style program 


First four degrees are established: economics, English, chemistry, and psychology. Eighty-eight students begin taking classes. 


In January, the Graduate Center rents space for administrative offices and advanced seminars on the second floor of 33 West 42nd Street, across from Bryant Park and the New York Public Library.


On May 17, the first commencement is held for two graduates: Daniel Robinson in Psychology and Barbara B. Stern in English. Both followed academic paths. Robinson applied neuropsychological research to philosophical problems, published over 50 books, and retired as a professor at Georgetown University. Stern applied literary theory to marketing as a professor at Rutgers Business School-Newark.

first-commencement-1965-Barbara-Bergenfeld-Stern in black and white

Barbara B. Stern, the first woman to receive a Ph.D., in 1965


Aeolian-Hall-building-from-Bryant-Park in black and white
33 West 42nd Street

Arthur M. Schlensinger Jr., celebrated historian, who advised President Kennedy, is named the first Albert Schweitzer Chair in the Humanities. He held the position until retiring in 1994. In 2001, the Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. Chair in American History was established at the Graduate Center.

Space in the 18-story building at 33 West 42nd Street is purchased for $6.25 million to house the Graduate Center. The renovation of the cultural landmark, where George Gershwin debuted Rhapsody in Blue, was hailed by architectural critics.


The CUNY Graduate Division earns the status of a CUNY college and is renamed the Graduate School and University Center. The transition makes Mina Rees the first woman president of a CUNY college. She retires later in the year.

Enrollment reaches 2,700. Close to 500 Ph.D. degrees awarded in 10 years and doctoral programs number 26.  

The Graduate Center devotes its first-floor mall, a pedestrian space that stretched between 41st and 42nd Streets, to public art exhibitions. The local planning board praised it as “the only free cultural center” in midtown Manhattan.


Harold Proshansky, a graduate of City College and a pioneer in environmental psychology, becomes the second president of the Graduate Center. He served until 1990.


The New York City financial crisis causes budget cuts. Course offerings are limited, hiring is frozen, a moratorium is placed on new doctoral programs, and the library is closed on weekends.


President Harold Proshansky is named to the board of directors of the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, which coordinated the revitalization of the park, now considered one of the country’s great public spaces.


A survey by the National Research Council ranks six of the Graduate Center’s programs — Anthropology, English, French, History, Linguistics, and Music — among the 15 best in the country.


The Graduate Center Foundation is established to develop private financial support for the center. In the 1990s, President Frances Degen Horowitz would expand the board’s role, leading it to increase its assets.


Amid CUNY-wide protests of a proposed undergraduate tuition hike, the Graduate Center is occupied by demonstrators for 10 days. 

Frances Degen Horowitz, a developmental psychologist, becomes president of the Graduate Center. She served in the role until 2005.

Frances Horowitz Headshot

President Frances Degen Horowitz


In July, the Graduate Center receives budget approval for $66 million to move to a larger space to accommodate its growing enrollment.


graduate center-entire corner view
365 Fifth Avenue, the GC's present home.

The Graduate Center moves to 365 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, which was once home to the B. Altman Department Store. “People will still shop in this building,” President Frances Degen Horowitz announced, “but now they will shop for ideas.” With the new building, the Graduate Center’s space expands to 480,000 square feet on eight floors.


Professor John Corigliano wins the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra. He is the fifth member of the Graduate Center faculty to win a Pulitzer.


William Kelly, an American Studies scholar and previously Graduate Center provost, becomes president of the Graduate Center.

The Graduate Center core faculty grows to 128, up from 106 just five years earlier.


The Graduate Center receives a $2.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to fund a five-year project to spur interdisciplinary innovation in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.


Student and faculty housing opens in East Harlem. 


Chase F. Robinson, a scholar of Islamic history and culture and previously provost and senior vice president of the Graduate Center, is named its fifth president.


English doctoral student Gregory Pardlo wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection, Digest.


The James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality is launched.


The Advanced Science Research Center


The CUNY Advanced Science Research Center joins the Graduate Center.

French President Emmanuel Macron comes to the Graduate Center to launch the Dual Language Fund, at an event co-hosted with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy.            

The Miranda Fellowship for the Study of Puerto Rican Communities is established.


New master’s programs are introduced, bringing the total number of master’s degrees offered to more than 15.

A grant of $2.265 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supports an initiative to transform doctoral education in the humanities.

SUM website is launched at the Graduate Center, highlighting research, innovation, and creativity at CUNY.


Record-breaking grants for science research go to Professors Patrizia Casaccia and Andrea Alù.


$16 million Simons Foundation grant funds photonics research.

A $3.15M Mellon Foundation grant supports humanities teaching and learning.

Robin L. Garrell, a chemist and leader in higher education equity, is named the sixth president.


Tania Leon conducting

Professor Emerita Tania León (Credit: Craig Matthews)

$9.5 million gift from the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Foundation supports scholarship by the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality.

Distinguished Professor Emerita Tania León (GC/Brooklyn, Music) wins the Pulitzer Prize in Music for her orchestral work Stride, which was commissioned as part of the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center’s Project 19, marking the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

Professor Andrea Alù, founding director of the Photonics Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center and Einstein Professor of Physics at the Graduate Center, is named the 2021 Blavatnik National Awards Laureate in Physical Sciences and Engineering. The award is the world’s largest unrestricted prize for early-career scientists and engineers.

In August, the Graduate Center campus opens for in-person classes for the first time since March 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic caused CUNY to switch to remote instruction. 

More Looking Back

Fifty Years at the Center: A History of The Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York from 1961 to 2011 by Michael Anderson gives a detailed account of the Graduate Center's first half-century and was a key source for this timeline. 

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing