The University of the State of New York (USNY, is the state of New York’s governmental umbrella organization for both public and private institutions in New York State. The “university” is not an educational institution: it is, in fact, a licensing and accreditation body that sets standards for schools operating in New York State, from pre-kindergarten through professional and graduate school, as well as for the practice of a wide variety of professions. The group of people who make decisions about and for USNY is known as the New York State Board of Regents. USNY should not be, though often is, confused with the State University of New York.
The Board of Regents of the USNY was established by statute on May 1, 1784, to provide oversight to King’s College – today known as Columbia University – a private institution, and other colleges and academies incorporated in the state thereafter. On April 13, 1787, the legislature enacted a law that allowed individual educational institutions to have their own trustees and gave the Regents broader responsibilities for overseeing education in New York. The new law 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.
Early in the 19th century, the Regents established standards for incorporating private academies and colleges, including specifying the texts or subjects that academies must teach to qualify for state aid. Aid was restricted to those students who had passed local entrance examinations. To combat the problem of academies lowering their standards in order to attract students and get state aid, during the later nineteenth century the Regents developed and instituted educational standards for high schools statewide, through use of the Regents examinations and syllabi.
The legislature gave the Regents responsibility for the New York State Library and New York State Museum in 1844 and 1845, respectively, and in 1889 and 1892 expanded the USNY’s responsibilities significantly to include the incorporation and supervision of all libraries, museums, correspondence schools, and other educational institutions. An 1872 statute authorized the Regents to appoint examining and licensing boards in the state’s medical schools, and in 1890 the Regents were given the exclusive power to license physicians. Also starting in 1890, the Secretary to the Board of Regents – then Melvil Dewey, also head of the State Library – supervised full-time inspectors of secondary schools, libraries, colleges, and other institutions reporting to the Regents. Starting in 1910 private trade schools were required to be licensed and inspected, and in 1923 licensing requirements were extended to correspondence schools operating in the state.
The Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York oversees USNY. The Board includes 17 members elected by the New York State Legislature for five-year terms. Thirteen of the Regents represent the state’s 13 judicial districts (one appointed from each district), and four are at-large. The Regents serve without salary.
USNY’s affiliation and oversight are very broad. As a legal technicality, USNY includes all of the state’s more than 7,000 public and private elementary and secondary schools; approximately 250 public and private colleges and universities; another approximately 250 proprietary (for-profit) schools; nearly 7,000 libraries; about 750 museums; all of the state’s local historical societies; and 25 public broadcasting facilities. Also included in USNY are the State Archives; a special school for the blind and another special school for the deaf; as well as vocational rehabilitation and special education services. Additionally, USNY has the affiliation of, and oversight for, more than half a million professionals practicing in 58 licensed professions, ranging from accountancy to architecture to engineering to massage therapy to hair styling, as well as 200,000 public certified school teachers, counselors, and administrators. Certain education-related institutions (such as most museums) could exist in New York State without being part of USNY; however, as an example, most museums in New York State choose to be part of USNY (i.e., be chartered by the Board of Regents) in order to obtain tax-exempt nonprofit status and other benefits.
USNY can also issue honorary degrees; the honorary degrees that can be issued come from an established list contained in Rules of the Board of Regents (“Regents Rules”). USNY also has the power to directly issue (as opposed to through some other institution) diplomas, certificates, and degrees. Today, for a variety of reasons, USNY directly issues diplomas to individuals meeting graduation requirements at several postsecondary institutions in New York State.
USNY is the State University of New York (SUNY), which is one of New York State’s systems of public higher education, the other being the City University of New York (CUNY). Like all colleges and universities in the state, the 64 SUNY and 23 CUNY campus units are all part of USNY. However, the power of SUNY and CUNY units to grant degrees exists by mandate of the State Legislature; a private college or university in New York State would be allowed to grant degrees by virtue of a charter granted by the USNY Board of Regents. No institution in New York State can call itself, per New York State law, a “college” or “university”, nor award academic degrees, without being chartered by NYSED and being a USNY member. Institutions in the state can, however, offer non-degree certificate programs without adhering to these requirements.