Founded in 1930, Brooklyn College was New York City’s first public coeducational liberal arts college. The school was envisioned as a stepping stone for the sons and daughters of immigrants and working-class people toward a better life through a superb — and at the time, free — college education.
The first campus was set in the busiest section of downtown Brooklyn, within the shadows of Borough Hall and court buildings, and near a busy commercial thoroughfare. A student at the time had these words to say about the “campus” of the early 1930s:
Oh, Brooklyn College, thou art loveliest seen
In gentle springtime, when traffic lights are green
Within two years, the college had spread to another building, and the idea of constructing a formal campus soon took hold. Several sites throughout the borough were considered, and the first president, William A. Boylan, embraced a large track in the Midwood neighborhood proposed by a young architect, Randolph Evans. Even before the site was chosen, Evans had drafted a design for a Georgian-style campus facing a central quadrangle and anchored by a library building with a tall tower. Conveniently, the land was owned by his employers and, at the time, was being used as a golf course, a football field and the staging area for Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Despite being in the throes of the Great Depression, progress was made surprisingly quickly. On Dec. 21, 1934, the city’s Board of Estimate approved the purchase of the Midwood lot for $1,625,528. In January, the Public Works Administration of the federal government allocated $5 million for the buildings’ construction. And on Oct. 2, 1935, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, in the presence of Boylan and Borough President Raymond V. Ingersoll, took a silver-plated shovel and symbolically broke ground for the official beginning of Brooklyn College’s new campus. Workers enlisted in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) completed most of the buildings and landscaping within two years.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt came on campus and laid the cornerstone for the gymnasium, the final building in Evans’ plan, he said, “I am glad to come here today and to wish Brooklyn College the fine and successful future that it deserves. May it live through the generations to come for the building up of a better American citizenship.”
The college’s reputation grew throughout the following decades, driven in part by a prominent faculty across the disciplines. Students were expected to be among the city’s best as well, and they were required to pass a stringent entrance exam and keep up with the rigorous course work.
In 1961, Brooklyn College became a member of the City University of New York just as the college was entering one of its most tumultuous periods. The Vietnam War, combined with the demands of emerging ethnic and racial empowerment movements, led to almost weekly protests. Both the student body and the faculty engaged in vigorous debates on and off campus, while the college became somewhat famous in the borough for hosting controversial figures, including Abbie Hoffman and Bob Dylan.
In keeping with the spirit of the times, in 1970 CUNY instituted an open-admissions policy that granted any New York City resident, regardless of academic credentials or ability, the right to attend a CUNY school. As a result, enrollment at Brooklyn College swelled to more than 30,000 students in only a few years. This led to severe overcrowding in classrooms, depletion of services and budget concerns that resulted in an acute fiscal emergency in 1975. The college closed its downtown campus and began “retrenchment,” cutting back tenured faculty, administration and many services.
Five years later, Brooklyn College began to regain some of its former luster, led by the creation in 1981 of a nationally recognized Core Curriculum that gave students a strong foundation in the liberal arts. In addition to strengthening the curriculum, the college began to hire new faculty again, invigorating the departments with their youth and scholarship.
The rejuvenation of the curriculum was mirrored by an increased effort to improve facilities and begin an ambitious building campaign. A major renovation and expansion of the library began in the late 1990s, increasing space for its holdings and providing facilities for new media and online services, classroom facilities, and the college’s Special Collections, including important archival holdings. The West Quad Center — the first new building to be added to the campus in decades — followed, presenting the college with the opportunity to group all student services, as well as athletic facilities, under one roof. The college broke ground in 2011 for the Leonard & Claire Tow Center for the Performing Arts, which will include rehearsal and performance space, set design and construction workshops, ground-floor exhibition space, a double-height theater seating 200, a grand lobby and arcade, classrooms, and meeting and reception rooms. The newest scheduled project is the Roosevelt Science Teaching Commons, which will improve research facilities for programs in the hard and natural sciences. The complex will be dedicated to promoting an increased public understanding of science and to engaging the community — both at the college and in the borough of Brooklyn.
Under the leadership of the college’s ninth and current president, Karen L. Gould, a wide-reaching transformation occurred in fall 2011 with the creation of four new schools and the arrival of deans to head them. The existing School of Education was joined by the School of Business, the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, and the School of Visual, Media and Performing Arts. Together, they will foster new collaboration across disciplines, allow for increased grant and research resources, and provide for an increase in fundraising opportunities. Most especially, it is expected that the formation of schools will increase the prominence of Brooklyn College and enhance its reputation both in the academic world and in the greater community of Brooklyn and New York City.