Audrey Cohen: MCNY's Pint-Sized Powerhouse

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Audrey Cohen (née Morgan) was small in physical stature but towered as a figure in the history of American education. In the face of constant and frequently hostile resistance, Morgan made it her life’s work to advance the causes of gender equality and social justice. She put forth the earth-shattering notion that a woman could have both a family and a career. Through her Manhattan-based Metropolitan College of New York, Morgan helped make these ambitions a reality for thousands.

Volunteers of America

Born in Pittsburgh in 1931, Morgan came of age during a time when women were first beginning to play a critical role in America’s workforce. With America’s men off fighting on the frontline, women suddenly entered the nation’s employment ranks en masse. When hostilities ended, we were faced with the logistical challenge of repatriating our soldiers without displacing millions of new workers.

Against this backdrop, Morgan studied at the University of Pittsburgh, where she majored in political science and education. During the summers, she actively pursued volunteer work through the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). These experiences proved revelatory, instilling Morgan with a lifelong commitment to socially progressive causes.

Part-Time Parent

Marrying US Navy intelligence officer Mark Cohen and giving birth to two daughters, Audrey was faced with a dilemma; how best to reconcile her equal commitments to family and career. It was 1958, a time when men were rarely asked to choose between the two. Cohen recognized that countless other women were increasingly facing the same difficult decision so she launched the Part-Time Research Associates (PTRA). The organization worked to match educated, married women with part-time or contract-basis research projects. The very idea that a woman could do skilled, paying work while raising children was revolutionary in its time.

Cohen’s Crusade

But by 1964, with a wave of civil revolutions rippling all around her, Cohen came to believe that part-time support simply wasn’t enough. It was thus that she and her family moved to New York City, where she founded The Women’s Talent Corps. The Talent Corps aimed to create entry-level jobs in the service, public and health sectors and to provide on-the-job training for new hires. Her experience with grass-roots campaigning proved exceptionally valuable as she visited churches, schools and homes to meet with women in low-income neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant and Harlem. She asked these women what kinds of jobs they desired and what kind of work they thought could best improve their respective communities.

Naturally, Cohen faced resistance in her crusade, largely at the hands of social services bureaucracies disquieted by the rising tide of women in the workforce (Think Mad Men but with cheaper suits). In spite of the resistance to change, the 1964 passage of the Equal Opportunity Act cleared a path to legitimacy for the Talent Corps. The institution earned a Community Action Program Grant in 1966 and began accepting students that same year.

From Community Action to College Accreditation

Enrolling only low-income students, the Talent Corps had an immediate impact on its community. Its skill-centric curriculum helped move hundreds of inner-city women from public assistance to paid employment in just its first few years of operation. In 1969, the school was rebranded as the College for Human Services. The following year, Cohen’s school earned the right to grant two-year Associate degrees. Once again, Cohen battled fiercely against patriarchal resistance for this distinction.

Indeed, Cohen’s career saw her shattering one glass ceiling after another, each time facing staunch opposition from the protectors of the status quo. In the 1970s, at the height of the protest era, Cohen navigated her school through a crisis of racial identity and, thereafter, through the transformation from two-year institution to fully accredited four-year college. Ultimately, her tenacity helped to forge a school guided by a groundbreaking concept. Designing a curriculum centering around “competencies” in human services, the college provided a model for higher education centering on instruction in practical skills for women.

Cohen’s model attracted attention and praise, even influencing the development of similar curricula in other schools. And just as the role of women in the workplace has advanced and expanded in the decades thereafter, so would Cohen guide her school to remain apace, as with the 1983 initiation of a business degree program and the 1988 establishment of a master’s program in public administration.

Cohen’s Legacy

In 1992, the school would be renamed the Audrey Cohen College in honor of its tireless founder, before again being rebranded a decade later as the Metropolitan College of New York (MCNY). When she died in 1996, at the age of sixty-four, The New York Times noted that Audrey Cohen schools enrolled more than twenty thousand elementary and secondary students in five US states. For every woman with the practical skills, knowledge, and audacity to pursue a career, and every young girl with ambitions that know no limitations, Audrey Cohen’s legacy looms enormous.

Part of the Legends of College History Series

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Campus Characters: Legends of College History

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