Our History


50th Anniversary of the SUNY College of Optometry

The College will celebrate its 50th Anniversary throughout the year and concluding in June 2022. This also marks the 65th Anniversary of the Optometric Center of New York (OCNY) and the University Eye Center (UEC). Click here to view the UEC Calendar.


1910 – Optometry emerged as a profession in the late 1800’s with apprenticeships, privately owned schools and correspondence courses serving as the foundation for educating the practitioners.

New York City’s Columbia University opened the first, university-based school of optometry in the United States in 1910 leading the way for formalized optometric education.

Read Review of Optometry’s A Fight for the Right to Learn

The New York Commissioner of Education saw the benefit of Columbia’s program and passed a bill allowing only graduates of a university-affiliated school of optometry to qualify for the state board exam. This signaled the end of the apprenticeship system of licensure and initiated a new era in optometric education. [Excerpt from A Fight for the Right to Learn]

When the Columbia Optometry program closed its doors in 1956, New York and the entire surrounding region was left without a school or college of optometry.

Later that same year a small group of optometrists and philanthropists from around New York City and the surrounding region came together to form the Optometric Center of New York (OCNY), a nonprofit health and education resource, as a way to fill the void left by the closing of the school at Columbia. The OCNY conducted vision and eye research, provided post-graduate course work and also established a much-needed eye care clinic, as well as a series of satellite clinics in underserved areas of the city.

After more than a decade of lobbying from the OCNY, as well as the New York State Optometric Association, the New York City Health Commissioner and others who recognized a desperate and growing need for more optometrists in New York and the surrounding region, the New York State Legislature unanimously voted to establish a new college of optometry at the end of its 1970 session.

Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed the bill in 1970, however, due to an amendment that needed to be made to the bill, two additional bills were passed during the next legislative session and on April 14, 1971 Governor Rockefeller officially established the State University of New York College of Optometry. Dr. Alden N. Haffner, the OCNY’s executive director, became the founding president. The initial class entered the College in September 1971.

SUNY Optometry initially moved into an eight-story building on East 25th Street near Lexington Avenue in Manhattan where the OCNY had been operating a clinic for many years.

In addition to its educational and clinical responsibilities, the College also took over the OCNY’s research program, helping to establish the SUNY College of Optometry’s reputation as a major hub for vision science research that has continued to this day.

Shortly after opening, however, the College rented space in a second building on East 23rd Street. The College grew steadily and between 1972 and 1982, enrollment jumped from about 50 total students to over 250.

The College launched its first, year-long residency programs, including the first vision therapy residency program in the nation.

SUNY College of Optometry began with a class of 17 students that became the College’s first graduates in 1975. Today, the SUNY Optometry student body includes nearly 100 hundred students per class and 3,400 alumni throughout the nation and abroad.

With continued growth and expanding programs, the College consolidated its facilities into a 130,000 square foot space within a 20-story building at East 24th Street and Park Avenue South in 1976. This remained the SUNY College of Optometry’s home for the next quarter century.

In 1978 President Haffner left the College to become the vice chancellor for research, graduate studies and professional programs for the State University of New York system. Dr. Edward R. Johnston became the College’s second president and remained at the helm until 1987.

Dr. Haffner returns to lead the College for a second time.

Dr. Haffner

The State University of New York (SUNY) system approved the College’s move from its East 24th Street location to its current home, an historic, 18-story building on West 42nd Street.

Built in 1912 for the Aeolian Piano Company, the building, which had most recently been occupied by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, originally housed the renowned Aeolian Hall which hosted numerous, highly-regarded performances in the 1910s and 20s. In fact, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” made its world debut at Aeolian Hall during a performance on the afternoon of February 12, 1924.

Aeolian Hall
Aeolian Hall-Gershwin

In May, after a series of renovations to accommodate the College’s clinic, the move to 42nd Street across from Bryant Park was completed.

Founding President Haffner, after serving a total of 26 years at the helm, retired from the SUNY College of Optometry at the end of 2005.

Dr. David A. Heath was appointed the College’s third president by the SUNY Board of Trustees in early 2007.

Dr. Heath inauguration

In 2008, the College adopted a comprehensive strategic plan called A Shared Vision, with the goal of putting the institution on the appropriate track toward providing the most innovative education and patient care possible, as well as to help advance vision science through significant and bold research efforts. In spite of the challenging economic environment in which it was implemented, A Shared Vision helped to establish several key programs at the College, including the Graduate Center for Vision Research, the Center for International Programs, the Career Development Center, the MBA Certificate program and more.

In 2009, the OCNY launched The Vision and the Promise, a five-year, $10 million fundraising campaign designed to support the growing and ambitious educational, research and patient care activities of the institution, and to help support its increased philanthropic work in the community.

That same year, the College’s clinic, the University Optometric Center, was renamed the University Eye Center (UEC) and its referral service was also established. Since then, the number of patients referred to the UEC each year has increased nearly threefold. In 2012, the clinic received over 75,000 patient visits, a more than 27 percent increase from just seven years earlier.

After more than five years of planning and design—and two years of construction—the three-floor, 20,000 square-foot Center for Student Life and Learning opened in 2013. The dynamic new space includes a large preclinical procedures laboratory, classroom and study space, a large seminar room, lounges, event space and a fitness center. The new Center provided a vast improvement to both the learning and recreational facilities of the College. Later that year, additional renovations were completed to upgrade the College’s research facilities as well.

Enhancements to our learning, research, and clinical facilities continue with the renovation of the Harold Kohn Vision Research Library, new laboratories and practices rooms on the Lower Lobby, and a translational research lab.

The College also formed a partnership with NYC Health + Hospitals to expand vision and eye care services across the five boroughs of New York City and address issues in population health, including health disparities. The College has 65 affiliated clinical sites.

Renovation of the Harold Kohn Vision Research Library

Admist a global pandemic that forced shuts downs, record unemployment, and moved education to remote learning, the College succeeded in opening the Barbara Salzman Center for Pediatric Eye Care on April 1. All lectures moved to remote, synchronous learning along with many of the traditional events such as Commencement, White Coat Ceremony, and alumni events. The University Eye Center remained open and launched a telehealth program to ensure patient care remained accessible while simultaneously teaching the upcoming ODs how to traverse a new way of providing care.

First Patient at Pediatric Center
2022 White Coat
Service Patients-Community Teleheath

The College will celebrate its 50th Anniversary throughout the year and concluding in June 2022. This also marks the 65th Anniversary of the Optometric Center of New York (OCNY) and the University Eye Center (UEC).

Learn More

50th Class Begins Training at SUNY Optometry

The Class of 2025 at the State University of New York College of Optometry celebrates the start of their journey to become eye doctors. The group of aspiring optometrists made up of 98 new students, including 76 women, is the College’s 50th entering class since its founding in 1971.  Read More