Monday, May 6, 2013

Doman: The Gift of SUNY Education

Jonathan Doman
April 5, 2013
The Gift of SUNY Education
The United States has been labeled by many as the land of opportunity, a continually evolving nation that has overcome racial, gender and economic barriers in order to give everyone a fair shot at success. One could argue there was no time period in American history more supportive of this claim than the latter half of the 20th century. It was during this time that millions of Americans took advantage of the newly established public university system which provided aspiring students the ability to acquire an affordable college education. While there are currently hundreds of public universities around the country, this paper will focus on the development of the SUNY (State University of New York) system. By examining SUNY’s historical evolution, one can appreciate the impact it has had on its students and the working class culture in America.

In the aftermath of World War II (1945), the U.S government knew it had to reform the lives of working class citizens. With the nation’s economy finally recovering from the Depression, changes had to be made to avoid another financial collapse. The result was the federal government’s introduction of the GI Bill which provided a college education to veterans who would have otherwise never been able to afford it. It was created as both a reward to returning veterans for their service, as well as a way to prevent the job market from becoming overwhelmed with applicants.
Prior to the war, colleges were sparse in number and were primarily reserved for the wealthy. However, with the introduction of the GI Bill, thousands of returning veterans from all racial backgrounds began attending college in the late 1940s- and early 1950s. This cultural transformation resulted in the American workforce gradually becoming more educated while earning diplomas in their specialized fields. In addition, it allowed working class citizens of color to get accepted into schools they wouldn’t have necessarily been accepted into before the war.
Historical Examination of SUNY
Advocates for accessible higher education programs were not only in the federal government, but in the state of New York as well. In 1946, Governor Thomas Dewey addressed the “need for a state university, including professional schools, to equalize educational opportunities throughout the State, and to provide larger educational plants required by a greater population. Upon this recommendation, the state Legislature created a Temporary Commission, aimed at thoroughly examining the steps necessary in how to enact this project.1
Dewey and the Legislature were well aware of the unprecedented demand for higher education from the returning veterans as well as the lack of post-high school facilities available before the war. Also, with increased birth rates from the “baby boomer” era just beginning, Dewey understood the need to finalize the plans in a timely manner. SUNY was officially established two years later in February of 1948.2 Dewey, along with Governor Nelson Rockefeller who later took office in 1974, are credited as arguably the most influential figures in the history of the SUNY system.
In its first decade of operation, SUNY endured some constructive criticism from historian Theodore C. Blegen. In his 1957 report Research Potentials and Problems in the State University of New York, Blegen compared SUNY to an “academic animal without a head” because of its failure to construct a sophisticated center for research development (Blegen, 1957).3 After acknowledging the accomplishments of SUNY since its beginnings, Blegen contended that SUNY would never be properly acknowledged by the academic community until this project was completed. Blegen concluded his report by explaining how a well developed research center would not only benefit the university, but the state of New York as well. He claimed that upon completion, SUNY would quickly gain the power, wealth and prestige to become one of the premier public universities in America. Once this happened, the university would become a great source of pride for the people of New York as it would attract the brightest young minds the country has to offer.4
It is worth noting that Blegen spent most of his accomplished career as an educational historian who often wrote about his examinations of educational systems around the world. The following decades featured the development of advanced research and graduate programs, indicating that SUNY was influenced by Blegen’s report. In fact, SUNY increased its expenditures for sponsored research over a ten year period from $10.4 million in 1962-63 to an estimated $47.1 million for 1971-72 (SUNY, 1972).5
By the early 1970s, SUNY was well on its way to becoming the elite program Blegen had predicted. The 1972 document The Master Plan of 1972 State University of New York depicted the problems SUNY was facing at the time, reflections on the recent past and preparations for the upcoming ten years. Written entirely by SUNY policy makers, the document primarily focused on the specific ways SUNY was going to create new educational opportunities and the need to expand enrollment for prospective students. With already over 50 campuses by 1972, they explained how their unique geographical layout was able to accommodate students with a reasonable drive to the nearest campus.6 This innovate model of the commuter school opened up opportunities for the working class that were previously unavailable. Students no longer had to move away from their families if they didn’t want, or were unable to. Finally, dorm was no longer required as many working class students were able to save money by living at home and earn money at a part time job while attending college.
In addition to educational reforms, this detailed plan also outlined SUNY’s efforts to improve the quality of life for its students. They explain how many students experienced little to no social life, due in part to the wide variety of ethnic backgrounds all mixed together. Although the nation was evolving in terms of racial acceptance, there was still disunity among the various ethnic groups. In an effort to promote positive relationships among the diverse groups of students, SUNY stated its plans to hold social events, with an emphasis on individual and group expression. Examples of this included theatrical plays, musical concerts, dancing, and academic debates. While it would be very difficult to assess how successful these attempts were, one could appreciate SUNY taking a proactive interest in the happiness of their students.7
In its earliest stages, SUNY, not to be confused with CUNY (City University of New York), was made up of 29 unaffiliated institutions, including 11 teachers colleges (Short History of SUNY).8 By 1983, 64 individual colleges and universities were established with the university centers at Albany, Binghamton, Buffalo and Stony Brook. Through their specialized schools, facilities and colleges, the four university centers “offer a broad range of bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and professional degree options to the state’s college-bound young people and adults ("This is the State University of New York , 1983" ).”9 Thirty-five years after its official beginning, the SUNY experiment was already a major success. In addition to helping students, the expansion of SUNY created thousands of jobs for people all over the state. According to the SUNY Office of Affairs and Development, in 1983 approximately 32,200 full-time employees were working under SUNY as faculty, non-teaching professionals or non-professionals.10 These jobs were often absorbed by the graduating students who took the jobs once thy received their diplomas. Largely from the working class, these jobs provided many working class students a stable income after their graduation until they eventually found another place to work or achieved even further success through their SUNY employment.
It is currently April 5, 2013, and all indications show SUNY has only improved its path towards excellence. Even with the recent increases in tuition cost, the average yearly tuition for a full time SUNY student is only $5,570 compared to just over 25,000 for the average American private school11. While one might expect this vast cost difference to result in a lower quality of education, that has not been the case. According to the U.S News 2013 edition of Best Colleges is National Universities, Binghamton University was ranked 89th and SUNY Stony Brook was ranked 92nd.12 SUNY Geneseo was also recognized as a top 10 university in the Northern United States as the U.S News praises it as “a nationally recognized center of excellence in undergraduate education.”13 This type of national recognition has steadily led to increased academic standards for the elite SUNY universities that received more applications in 2012 than ever before. Thus, it created the culture for students of working class families to receive a high quality education at an affordable price.
Perhaps the most notable quality of the SUNY system since it was established was its continued promise to provide affordable and quality college education to the state of New York. Unlike many other public universities today, SUNY never used its resources to establish a major football or basketball program which costs millions of dollars and countless resources to successfully create. With about 40% of SUNY’s revenue coming from tax-payer money, citizens of New York deserve credit as well for desiring a system based on academic excellence, not entertainment.

1 Oliver Carmichael, New York Establishes A State University, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1955), 46.

2 Ibid. 48

3 Theodore Blegen, A Report On Research Potentials And Problems in the State University of New York, (Albany: 1957), 1.

4 Ibid. 12

5 "Reaffirmation and Reform: Building a Comprehensive University for the 1970s." (manuscript., SUNY , 1972).

6 Ibid. 17

7 Ibid. 36

8 SUNY, "Short History of SUNY." Accessed April 5, 2013.

9 , "This is the State University of New York ," 1983 Facts Book: 23,

10 Ibid. 15

11 SUNY, Accessed April 5, 2013.

12 SUNY, "SUNY-Stony Brook." Accessed April 5, 2013.

13 U.S News, "SUNY-Geneseo." Accessed April 5, 2013.

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