SUNY’s founders could never have expected they’d be planting a seed that would grow into the largest public university system in the U.S.
One out of every three New York State high school graduates attend a SUNY school with approximately 3 million living alumni around the world.
President Harry Truman was the first president to issue a report on the state of higher education within the U.S. in 1946. The report revealed that New York State had no public education system for higher learning.
N.Y. Governor Thomas Dewy had ambitions to run for president and knew that signing legislation to create a higher public education system could cause him to lose popularity among key voting groups.
Truman’s report put pressure on New York to create a schooling system for higher education. After many negotiations, the bill passed through the state legislature while Dewy was campaigning in Iowa during the presidential primaries.
Dewy paused his campaign in order to fly back to Albany and sign the documents that would create the State University of New York, and eventually Hudson Valley Community College.
On April 4. 1948, the SUNY system became the 48th state-funded higher education system and contained 29 unaffiliated institutions which would be incorporated within the system.
11 of the 29 schools were teachers’ colleges while six were agricultural and technical institutes. There were five institutes of applied arts and seven other colleges that would be contracted out as satellites to private universities.
SUNY dealt with disorganization in its first decade. Dewy didn’t have a clear vision for SUNY beyond creating an inclusive substitute for private college.
Dewy was not an advocate of higher education. He claimed that taxi drivers and mechanics made more money than lawyers.
“To regard a college degree as a guaranteed ticket to security is an illusion which I think all of us should join together in shattering,” said Dewy.
The Board of Regents, as the body in charge of overseeing education in New York, wanted control over the newly formed SUNY institution and gained control by forcing through the Cordon-Barrett bill.
The bill made it as far as Dewy’s desk where it was vetoed, elevating tensions between the Board of Regents and SUNY.
SUNY schools were unofficially banned from liberal arts and the training of secondary teachers, with the exception of Albany. The system only had the approval to teach engineering at the Maritime Academy. None of the SUNY schools were able to offer doctoral programs.
SUNY was also forced to completely rely on an uncooperative state legislature that banned it from raising funds privately.
Despite such challenges, SUNY would still move towards its goal of providing a public education option to New York.
In 1959 Nelson Rockefeller was elected governor of New York, and favored the SUNY system. During his time in office, he worked closely with SUNY chancellor Samuel B. Gould to improve the system.
Rockefeller reshaped the SUNY system, and personally supplied some of the funding. He encouraged the teachers’ colleges to become liberal arts colleges and for community colleges to expand. Students also started to pay for their own tuition.
Under Rockefeller and Gould, SUNY schools were now able to take part in research. They opened the door for four-year institutions to offer doctoral programs.
Between 1959 and 1973, SUNY grew from 29 campuses and 38,000 full-time students to 72 campuses and 232,000 full-time students. This period is often referred to as the “golden age” of SUNY.
Rockefeller would later call SUNY his, “greatest achievement.”
Over the next few decades, SUNY’s enrollment would mostly level off due to fluctuations within the economy.
Today, SUNY includes 64 schools. SUNY’s goal of accessibility has resulted in 100 percent of New Yorkers living within 30 miles of a SUNY campus.