It all began with Townsend Harris, a popular and successful merchant who was elected president of the New York City Board of Education in 1846. At that time, the concept of opening an institution of higher
education as a "public school" was circulating amongst social reformers, trade unionists and a few enlightened educators. But no one was more ardent than Harris in dedicating his time and energies to making this concept a reality. For Townsend Harris, this was a crusade.
The 1840s were a time of great social ferment Ñ the spread of the Industrial Revolution, the widespread faith in progress as new scientific and technological advances were made, the movement westward as the nation sought to fulfill its "manifest destiny," and the social changes brought about as masses of working class
immigrants began to arrive on our shores, full of hope for a better future for their children.
Townsend Harris was appalled that a bustling, port city of over half a million residents had only two
colleges enrolling a total of 247 young men, all from
prosperous families. These were Columbia College and the University of the City of New York, the predecessor of New York University.
Townsend Harris later became known as a great
diplomat, the key figure in initiating our country's
relationship with Japan. In 1846-47, these diplomatic skills proved crucial in New York City and in Albany, as he navigated rough political waters to see through the creation of what he foresaw as a free college.
The concept of free education at any level was still new. The Board of Education was established in 1842, only four years before Harris's historic election. Free, nonsectarian elementary schools were first set up in the city in 1805 and there were only five such schools by 1826.
The notion of extending education for the
masses to the higher levels was extremely controversial. Harris repeatedly introduced motions to the Board of Education and proclaimed his beliefs ardently.
"Open the doors to all," he urged. "Let the
children of the rich and the poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct, and intellect."