A participatory project to collect and preserve the histories of the City University of New York

Project History

The inspiration for the CUNY Digital History Archive emerged out of a conference at the CUNY Graduate Center held in October 2011. More than a dozen City University of New York research centers and academic departments sponsored “Defending Public Higher Education,” which explored the history and current state of public higher education.

Over the course of the day, many participants noted a striking paradox hovering over the proceedings: despite a long, rich history, there were startlingly wide gaps in the knowledge of CUNY faculty, students, staff, and alumni about that history (and an even greater lack of awareness on the part of the members of the general public at the conference). In addition, to remedy that problem, there was only a small body of monographs, scholarly studies, and public programs documenting the CUNY experience. Moreover, as revealed in comments by senior faculty and alumni who attended the conference, there were numerous stories and insights about CUNY’s history that needed to be collected or preserved—for example, accounts and recollections of the ultimately successful efforts of faculty, staff, and students at the university’s four-year and community-college campuses to save their schools from closing in the face of New York City’s 1970s fiscal crisis.

Subsequent to the conference, these realizations generated a notable groundswell of activity around CUNY. Building on previous scholarship and public history projects (such as James Traub’s City on a Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College [1995], Gerald Markowitz’s Educating for Justice: A History of John Jay College of Criminal Justice [2004], and the Carol Smith's website "The Struggle for Free Speech at CCNY, 1931-1942" [2005]), faculty members, librarians, and graduate students introduced courses about CUNY’s past and instituted new scholarly, archival, and online projects. These initiatives included a fall 2012 seminar, taught by Professors Stephen Brier and Anthony Picciano in the Graduate Center’s Urban Education Ph.D. program, on the history of the university; Bronx Community College library’s digitization of fifty years of the college’s student newspaper, The BCC Communicator; and a curated oral history website by former Graduate Center librarian Cynthia Tobar documenting the 1990s student- and community organized welfare rights initiative at Hunter College. Additional ongoing research is being conducted by many CUNY faculty for forthcoming scholarly studies.

However, while more than a year and a half of such productive efforts began to fill gaps in the history of the City University—and to make the sources for this history available and accessible to the broader academic community and to the general public—these efforts also revealed the scope of the larger challenge to systematically build a more coordinated, focused, and representative CUNY history archive. The documents and records of CUNY’s varied and voluminous past remain, for the most part, difficult to access and are scattered across a wide spectrum of individual college, municipal, and state libraries and archives. Only a small amount of material is available online. The content of many of the collections is also restricted because there has been little effort to locate and catalog “unofficial” materials that represent the diverse and extensive experiences of CUNY faculty, staff, students, and alumni—whether in the form of documents, images, or recollections. Finally, the value of the many CUNY history projects—completed, underway, or planned—cannot be fully realized because they are structurally and cognitively isolated from one another: There is no one place where these resources, collective and individual, can be found and used. Clearly, these problems present a daunting challenge to any researcher or any member of the general public interested in documenting or accessing critical aspects of CUNY’s history.

In light of these insights, on January 23, 2013, the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning (ASHP/CML) convened a series of meetings to consider ways to address issues of coordination and coverage of as well as accessibility to CUNY’s history. The idea for the CUNY Digital History Archive emerged out of these meetings, involving an informal group representing a range of CUNY faculty members, librarians, students, and alumni. In addition, scholars, archivists, and programmers from other New-York area  institutions of higher learning were included. We have since involved additional archivists, faculty members, alumni, student interns, and CUNY retirees who wish to contribute to the content and construction of collections in the CUNY Digital History Archive.

Thanks to the project's earliest participants:

Asaro, Peter — New School
Battle, Andy — Graduate Center, CUNY
Brown, Joshua — Graduate Center, CUNY
Butt, Tahir — Graduate Center, CUNY
Copeland, Cynthia — New York University; The OutSourced Muse
Deale, Frank — CUNY Law School
Donovan, Gregory — St Peter’s College
Fabricant, Michael — Hunter College, CUNY
Forrestal, Valerie — College of Staten Island, CUNY
Friedheim, Bill — Borough of Manhattan Community College 
Gold, Matthew — Graduate Center, CUNY
Greenbaum, Joan — Graduate Center, CUNY
Harbison, Tom — BaruchCollege, CUNY
Kahn, Fern — LaGuardia Community College
Kolozi, Peter — Bronx Community College, CUNY
Markowitz, Gerald— John Jay College and The Graduate Center, CUNY
Medina, Douglas — Graduate Center, CUNY
Meyer, Gerald — Hostos Cmmunity College, CUNY
Murray, Jessica — Graduate Center, CUNY
Olivieri, Cheryl — Brooklyn College, CUNY
Perlstein, Jim — Borough of Manhattan Community College
Reed, Conor Tomas — Medgar Evers, CUNY
Smith, Carol — City College, CUNY
Sula, Chris Alen — Pratt Institute
Tamang, Suzanne — Graduate Center, CUNY
Tager, Florence — Medgar Evers, CUNY
Waltzer, Lucas — Baruch College, CUNY
Watson, Sandy — LaGuardia Community College