Mina Rees: Network Visionary

Mina ReesThe Graduate Center Library is named to honor a key figure in CUNY’s history. As we close in on sixty years of graduate education, it’s time to take an appreciative look back at the remarkable woman whose name the library bears.

Mina Rees, the Graduate Center Library’s namesake, was CUNY’s first Dean of Graduate Studies (1961–67) and the first president of the Graduate Center. Rees, who served with distinction as a technical aide and executive secretary for the Applied Mathematics Panel of the National Defense Research Committee during World War II, spent several postwar years (1946–53) as director of the Mathematical Sciences Division of the Office of Naval Research. In that role she was an architect of the U.S.’s national computing infrastructure network.  Liz Losh argues in work published earlier this year that Rees “engage[d]” with the messiness of networks of relationships that constitute infrastructure,” and that she “should be acknowledged as critical in the history of computing.”1

As Losh rehabilitates Dr. Rees’s work in the history of computation, let us also embrace Rees’s innovations in administration, namely CUNY’s networked model for PhD education.  Patterned after the University of London, Rees’s consortial model for higher education in CUNY drew faculty from well-established CUNY campuses to teach in new doctoral programs, building strength and reducing redundancy. 2 3 One important distinction between the CUNY consortium and the University of London: the University of London has a main library, the Senate House Library shared by all campuses, while 31 CUNY libraries scattered around the 24 campuses, plus the New York Public Library, act in concert to support CUNY. 4

Mina Rees imagined CUNY’s library service, as well as its PhD programs, not as a storehouse of books that characterized traditional visions of a great research library of the day but as a network that invoked the potential of mutual, coordinated growth. Dr. Rees did not explicitly speculate about the massive shifts in library service that digitization, open platforms, and interlibrary lending would develop following her design. But she realized that the power of networked minds and collaborative projects, like those she coordinated during and after the war, would constitute a powerful, productive, and efficient structure for graduate programs and libraries serving the new City University of New York.

Dr. Rees was a believer and an innovator in consortial higher education, and the library network that supports it. Her administrative structures and planning from fifty years ago extend excellent support of CUNY scholarship in particular, and higher education more broadly, today.


1 Elizabeth Losh. Home Inspection: Mina Rees and national computing infrastructure. First Monday. 23:3. March 5, 2018. 

2 Michael Anderson. Fifty Years at the Center: A History of the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York from 1961 to 2011. New York: The Graduate Center, 2011, pp. 13–15.

3 Mina Rees. The First Ten Years of the Graduate School. The City University of New York. New York: The Graduate Center, 1972, p. 2: “In December 1960, the Board of Higher Education of the City University of New York adopted a set of guidelines for the establishment of doctoral programs… The Board resolved that graduate work should be developed out of strong undergraduate and master’s programs, … that doctoral programs should be unified and fully draw upon the resources of these colleges.”

4 Ibid, p. 9: “In the social sciences, the humanities, and mathematics, students and faculty avail themselves of the fairly specialized collections at the Graduate Center, and the library resources at the senior colleges—accessible through an intra-university loan service—as well as the very extensive and excellent collections of the New York Public Library…”




About the Author

Prof. Polly Thistlethwaite is CUNY's Interim University Dean for Library Services.