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Monday, July 21, 2008

Experiment of Open Admissions Comes Back to Haunt CUNY

By Nicholas Stix

Insight on the News
August 16, 1999

To survivors of New York’s World War II generation, it was not surprising news: Their legendary, beloved City College and its sister campuses were getting another bad report card. In June the mayor’s Advisory Task Force on CUNY gave failing grades to 30 years of CUNY’s experimentation with open admissions and remedial education. The 12-volume report, The City University of New York: An Institution Adrift, could have national repercussions.

Some who know City College’s (CCNY) history inevitably ask: How could something that was so right go so wrong? From 1915 to 1965, the tuition-free colleges of what is now the City University of New York, or CUNY, represented an experiment in pure meritocracy.

CUNY’s City College campus, or CCNY, founded in 1847, had tougher standards than Harvard and graduated eight future Nobel laureates. Its alumni include former Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph, polio conqueror Jonas Salk, former New York City mayor Ed Koch and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Colin Powell. “The Jewish students loved the place, loved it utterly, hopelessly, blindly” wrote the late socialist literary scholar and CUNY professor Irving Howe of his alma mater.

But that was then. In 1970, CUNY instituted a policy of open admissions, guaranteeing every New York City high-school graduate acceptance to a CUNY campus. The policy of “open admissions” was a politically charged response to the spring 1969 building takeovers and riot threats by Puerto-Rican and black City College students.

Today, 70 percent of the 18-campus system’s 200,000 students, as opposed to 56 percent of college students nationally, require remediation. At the community colleges, two of which have two-year graduation rates of 0.2 percent, the remediation rate is 87 percent.

The task force was chaired by former Yale University president Benno C. Schmidt Jr., head of the Edison Project that runs for-profit public schools, and included CUNY Board of Trustees Chairman Herman Badillo (a 1951 graduate of City College), who was Republican New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s top educational adviser. Its report indicts “CUNY’s failure to ensure that remediation is effective,” emphasizing that “the whole remediation enterprise seems slapdash” CUNY administrators and faculty long have damned CUNY’s placement tests, which show that most CUNY freshmen cannot do college-level work, as “culturally biased.” But the report counters, “There is no evidence of the tests being biased against African-American or Hispanic students.”

The report also supported limiting remediation—previously offered at all campuses—to the system’s seven community colleges, a move that had been endorsed last year by the Board of Trustees.

Reactions by the political and educational establishment were predictable. Confronting Schmidt at a June 21 meeting of the City Council Committee on Higher Education, black Councilman Bill Perkins complained of “the racist stereotypes and innuendoes that are implied in this report.” At the same meeting, black Councilwoman Helen Marshall told Schmidt, “In reading this report, I get a feeling of ethnic cleansing, all right?”

In the left-leaning Chronicle of Higher Education, staff writers Patrick Healey and Sara Hebel spoke of a “politically charged transformation from an institution that opens its doors to almost all applicants, into a Republican-led university that prizes enrolling and graduating students with solid academic records.”

The liberal New York Times has been strangely mute on the CUNY-report debate. Not so its jubilant tabloid competitors, both of whom long have criticized CUNY’s “standard of no standards.” The Republican-friendly New York Post titled an editorial “Hope Returns to CUNY” while the centrist Democratic Daily News went with, “CUNY Plan Rates Passing Grade .... Only at CUNY would such a plan [for phasing out remediation in senior colleges] be considered radical. Or elitist. Or racist.”

The CUNY report cannot be understood apart from the changing face of New York and national politics. CUNY chieftains’ history of reaching out to black and Hispanic students—regardless of grades and test scores—has demoralized better-prepared students, resulting in white flight and in what I call “ABC”—Anywhere but CUNY—college shopping among gifted black and Hispanic students.

Because the open-admissions/remedial model was introduced in New York in 1970, the CUNY report will loom large over other failing, urban public universities, most notoriously Chicago State University and the University of the District of Columbia. Thus, the curriculum of chaos that originated in New York may be swept away by a New York-based reform movement.

Nicholas Stix, a graduate of the City University of New York and an adjunct instructor there, writes on the politics of education from New York.

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Postscript, 2008: I never attended City College. Having grown up in Nassau County, just outside of New York City, I was ineligible to attend City, and since it had by then already been destroyed, I would not have wanted to attend it. In any event, as a high school dropout, I would never have been accepted to CCNY during its glory days, and could not have handled the volume of work it then demanded of its students.

And yet, I carry a torch for City, grieving as if I or my father had attended it. Although since returning in 1985 from my West German exile, I have read books and articles—and written a few articles myself—and seen a moving documentary about City College and the New York Jewish intellectuals of the Interwar period, I knew about that world long before I ever studied it.

Bright New York and Long Island Jewish boys of my generation seemed to learn about it at their mother’s breast, and in the very air they breathed. That’s why I wanted so much to attend the CUNY Graduate Center. Little did I know that the Philosophy Ph.D. program was then dominated by a clique of Columbia University Jews who were born upper middle class, who, their public statements to the contrary, held public higher education in contempt, and who hated poor Jews like yours truly with a purple passion. They didn’t know the history of City College, and if you’d told them about it, they’d have said you were lying.

That doesn’t mean that all the Jews I met at CUNY were anti-Semites, but the other profs steered clear of them and their machinations. I also met a kindly, patrician WASP professor who’d graduated from Columbia—to my knowledge, every full-time Philosophy Ph.D. faculty member had—who was a marvelous teacher, and who has been supportive of me ever since. And unlike the bad guys I encountered at CUNY, this particular man not only knew City College’s history, he was a City College professor going back to its Golden Age.

When I finally read William Barrett’s The Truants while attending CUNY, and later read James Traub’s City on a Hill and Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, and saw the documentary, Arguing the World, I was alternately moved to laughter and grief. To speak of the greatness of the old City College requires no embellishment, just brutal honesty.

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