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The Old College Try

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Schmidt supports the removal of remedial programs from the four-year baccalaureate programs, telling the State Board of Regents -- which will deliver the final vote on the controversial policy on November 22 -- that remediation was a "contributing factor" in CUNY's decline. If the policy is passed, CUNY's 200,000 students will face the biggest change since tuition was first charged in 1976. Unlike the students at close to 80 percent of the colleges in America, prospective CUNY students who fail even one of a series of skills tests won't be able to enroll. Instead, they will be directed to CUNY's community colleges -- and, if Schmidt has his way, a selection of publicly subsidized private-education providers.

In pushing this agenda -- now also the agenda of chancellor Matt Goldstein, the former president of Baruch College, who was lured back to CUNY based largely on the gospel of An Institution Adrift -- Schmidt audaciously hangs his hat on the same causes that his opponents accuse him of betraying. "I really think education is the only source of opportunity that's meaningful in our society," Schmidt tells me. "It is the critical issue of freedom. This is what the civil-rights issue was to the previous generation."

And yet CUNY's real achievements cannot be easily dismissed. "There's nothing to fix," argues Bill Crain, a psychology professor at City College. "We're accepting students who haven't had the benefit of a good high-school education, we're giving them remediation, and we're helping them succeed. Other universities should be using us as a model. You're taking education away from people of color and giving it to middle-class white people. This is a tremendous reversal of civil rights."

In 1847, a Harlem school called the Free Academy first offered higher education free of charge to the working class, and a faction of politicians immediately moved to close it down. The Free Academy eventually became City College; the rest of the university bloomed early this century, defeating legislative attacks to curb student-body populations with petitions roughly every generation. This ushered in the era when a City College and a Harvard education could be mentioned in the same breath. Titans like Alfred Kazin, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and Nathan Glazer learned how to think great thoughts in Harlem. After World War II, the G.I. Bill and other federal money helped CUNY expand into the nation's largest public urban university. But blacks and recent immigrants saw themselves locked out of what was nominally a public university. And so, in 1969, amid civil-rights demonstrations, CUNY became the first university system in the country to offer open admissions.

At first, administrators planned a gradual open-admissions phase-in, in which some campuses would be more selective than others. Demonstrations changed all that. Seymour Hyman, the deputy chancellor during the student shutdown of City College's south campus, watched as the school's Great Hall seemed on the verge of incineration. "When I saw that smoke coming out of that building," he said later, "the only question in my mind was 'How can we save City College?' And the only answer was 'Hell, let everybody in.' "

This is what Schmidt's CUNY report calls "policy by riot." Schmidt sees this moment as the university's fatal error -- the moment CUNY allowed the quality of its student body to be held hostage by the secondary schools' sinking standards. To a large segment of the city, however, it was a triumph -- the only way to open CUNY's doors. "Ivy League colleges were out of the question, we knew that, but the city colleges were cut off to us, too," remembers council member Helen Marshall. "It was just as important to the black community as affirmative action. It was a whole new world for us."

By 1972, CUNY's black and Latino student population had leapt from 9 percent to 35 percent. Enrollment maxed out at 272,000. To handle the influx of students, the state built new community colleges -- something Heather Mac Donald, the conservative pundit from the Manhattan Institute who sat on Schmidt's CUNY task force, high-handedly dismisses as "racial pacification."

" CUNY will be inundated with enrollment -- not the first year, but as quickly as two to three years," Schmidt predicts. "If you set clear standards, more people will meet them."

And when some of the newcomers turned out to be unprepared for college, the faculty became pioneers again, coming up with remedial courses in reading, writing, and math. The CUNY system developed a dual mission, offering both colleges and second-chance high schools -- a strategy Schmidt says never should have happened. Remediation, he argues, "is an unfortunate necessity, and a distraction from the main business of the university."

When Rudy Giuliani called Schmidt two winters ago and asked him to investigate CUNY, Schmidt's initial reaction was disbelief. "I told him that people are gonna say, 'What does he know about CUNY? He comes from Yale,' " Schmidt recalls.

Today, 70 percent of CUNY's students are nonwhite, and half the first-time freshmen were born outside the U.S. or in Puerto Rico -- making CUNY's fate inescapably intertwined with that of the city's minorities. Schmidt, for his part, is the son of privilege: His father, Benno Schmidt Sr., was philanthropist Jock Whitney's venture capitalist. Benno the younger sprung from an Upper East Side youth to Yale, Yale Law School, and then a clerkship with Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. At Columbia, he became a First Amendment scholar and law-school dean; then, in 1986, he became Yale's twentieth president.

But there the rapid rise halted. Instead of planting roots in New Haven, Schmidt shuttled to and from Manhattan, where his third wife, Helen Whitney (no relation to Jock), worked as a documentary filmmaker. Almost immediately, he put two troubled Yale colleges -- the leaderless School of Organization and Management and the critically failing philosophy program -- into what he called "receivership." Students, who still barely knew him, started wearing T-shirts with the slogan WHERE'S BENNO? "When you're a university president, a lot of people don't know you -- they only learn about you through symbolic interaction," Schmidt now recalls. "I was slow to get that."


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