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History Of The Board & University Of The State Of New York

Image of King's College
King's College, founded in 1754.

The Regents of the University of the State of New York were created by statute May 1, 1784. The Regents were a corporation empowered to act as trustees of Columbia College (originally chartered as King's College in 1754 and closed during the Revolutionary War) and of every other college and academy incorporated in the state thereafter.

The Regents originally consisted of the governor, other state officers, and the mayors of New York and Albany, ex officio, plus twenty-four persons appointed for life. This unwieldy body soon got involved in the day-to-day administration of Columbia. In 1786 a Regents' committee recommended that colleges and academies have their own trustees, and that the Regents be given broader responsibilities for overseeing education in New York.

Legislative bills to that end were introduced in the Assembly by Regent Alexander Hamilton, and in the Senate by Regent Ezra L'Hommedieu, in 1787. A compromise bill became law. The act empowered the Regents to 'visit and inspect all the colleges, academies, and schools" in the state, award higher academic degrees, hold and distribute funds, and exercise other powers of a corporation. Until the board was reorganized under the unification act of 1904, nineteen Regents were elected for life terms by joint ballot of the Legislature; in addition, the governor and lieutenant governor served as Regents. Since 1894 the University of the State of New York has been continued by the Constitution, which states that its corporate powers 'may be increased, modified, or diminished" by the Legislature.

The Regents' protean power to "visit and inspect" member institutions of the University has taken various forms. During the nineteenth century the Regents exercised oversight by reviewing statistical reports from academies and colleges; only occasionally did Regents actually visit an institution. The Regents adopted standards for incorporating private academies (1801) and colleges (1811), and required academies to offer acceptable programs in order to receive aid from the Literature Fund, established in 1801. The Legislature made the Regents trustees of the State Library and the collections of the State Museum in 1844 and 1845, respectively. During the later nineteenth century the Regents developed educational standards for academies and high schools statewide, through use of the Regents examinations and syllabi. These innovations were discussed and promoted by the University convocations, meetings of educators held annually starting 1863. The scope of the University expanded significantly in 1889 and 1892, when the Regents obtained legislation giving them the right to incorporate and supervise libraries, museums, correspondence schools, and other educational institutions. The Secretary to the Board of Regents had long administered the affairs of the University. Starting in 1890 the Secretary (then the redoubtable Melvil Dewey, also head of the State Library) supervised full-time inspectors of secondary schools, libraries, colleges, and other institutions reporting to the Regents.

Unification of the University and Department of Public Instruction

New York State also developed a statewide system of public schools, under the common school law of 1812. Gideon Hawley, the first Superintendent of Common Schools, organized the system, distributed school aid from the Common School Fund, and prodded local officials to set up school districts and submit reports. Hawley was dismissed in 1821 for political reasons, and thereafter the Secretary of State served as the Superintendent of Common Schools. In 1854 the Legislature created a Department of Public Instruction, headed by a Superintendent elected jointly by the Senate and Assembly for a three-year renewable term. The new Department had a small staff which carried on the work of advising local school authorities, allocating state aid, and preparing reports to the Legislature.

The responsibilities of the Regents and the state officials in charge of the common schools overlapped. The Regents had a vague statutory authority to oversee all education in the state. After 1842 the Superintendent of Common Schools was a member of the Board of Regents, as was the Superintendent of Public Instruction after 1854. The latter official shared with the Regents the responsibility to inspect and report on academies. The rapid development of public high schools after the 1850s caused administrative confusion. The high schools were operated by union free or city school districts, which the law made subject to visitation and inspection by the Superintendent of Public Instruction. However, the academic programs of all secondary schools were under general supervision of the Regents. Unification of elementary, secondary, and higher education under one administration was considered and rejected by the constitutional conventions of 1867 and 1894, and proposed in legislative bills from time to time. Outright competition between the Regents and the Department of Public Instruction became intense and public during the 1890s, when the Superintendents of Public Instruction lobbied to have all secondary education placed under their control. But during the same decade the University's activist program under Secretary Melvil Dewey won the Regents many new supporters.

In 1899 the annual University convocation requested Governor Theodore Roosevelt to name a special commission to study unification. The commission's report proposed that a new department of education succeed the Department of Public Instruction and include the University, and that the Regents be appointed for fixed terms by the Governor with consent of the Senate. A joint legislative committee in 1904 recommended that elementary and secondary education be entrusted to a three-member commission, consisting of one Regent and two other members appointed by each of the two major parties in the Legislature. Governor Benjamin Odell and a Republican legislative caucus drew up their own, very different unification bill. This bill became law, establishing an Education Department, effective April 1, 1904. The new Department was headed by a Commissioner of Education, appointed by and responsible to the Regents. Andrew S. Draper, who had previously served two terms as Superintendent of Public Instruction, was named the first Commissioner of Education. Regents were to be elected by joint ballot of the Legislature to serve fixed terms, initially eleven years; some of the sitting Regents were continued in office. The board consisted of one Regent from each Supreme Court judicial district. Later on members-at-large were added (three after 1909, four after 1965). Regents' terms were set to equal in years the total number of Regents, resulting in one vacancy annually (the term reached fifteen years in 1969, when the twelfth judicial district was established). The Legislature reduced the (renewable) terms of office to seven years in 1974, and to five years in 1994, citing a need for increased accountability of the Regents.

Today the University of the State of New York embraces all the elementary, secondary, and higher education institutions in the state, the latter including libraries, museums, and other institutions of learning. The Board of Regents is the only state board of education having authority over all educational activity at all levels, including private and public, non-profit and for profit institutions. The board does much of its work through its standing committees, five of which correspond to the major offices of the Department, plus committees on administration, law, and legislation; and ethics. The full Board of Regents meets monthly (except August) and since 1994 has held some meetings outside of Albany. The board has slowly become more diverse in its composition. The first woman Regent was appointed in 1927, the first Italian-American in 1948, the first African-American in 1966, the first Puerto Rican-American in 1975.