Hard Times For The Harvard Of The Masses

Nostalgia is deceptively easy in Harlem. Developers have kept their distance, leaving the old brownstones to grow old gracefully, or to rot. Walking uphill on 145th Street from St. Nicholas Avenue to Convent Avenue, I can see that little has changed since I graduated from City College 19 years ago. What's this? A new hero shop near the IND subway station? I read the sign: All Sandwiches $2.75. 1975 prices. I glance at my reflection in the window. What year is this? How old am I?

For an alumnus, returning to City College can be an emotionally wrenching experience. That was particularly so in my case, because my alma mater was under attack. When I was at City, some people still referred to it as the Harvard of the Proletariat. But nowadays, critics maintain that the college has been so ravaged by declining standards that it is little more than a glorified high school. I wanted to get a first-hand look.

The criticism dismays alumni such as myself, implying as it does that our diplomas are worthless except, perhaps, as wall decorations. Until the late 1960s, City's intellectual acumen was never questioned. It had a glorious roster of graduates, from Alfred Kazin and Jonas Salk to Ira Gershwin and Emanuel Goldenberg (Edward G. Robinson to you). The City University system, led by City College, produces more top corporate executives than any other college, according to Standard & Poor's Corp. For years, it was the nation's leading source of future Nobel laureates.

City still produces its share of achievers, including Colin Powell, class of 1958, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But critics say that City began to disintegrate in 1970, when the City University system inaugurated an open-admissions policy guaranteeing a spot in senior colleges to city high school students with an 80 average or a senior-class ranking in the top one-third.

Today, City's students are overwhelmingly poor and from minority groups. Many are foreign-born, many work full time, and those who grew up in New York have the worst handicap of all--an "education" in the city's beleaguered public school system. The most damning recent look at City College, City on the Hill by journalist James Traub, maintains that today, City has an all-but-impossible mission. "The old City College refined those who came there," says Traub. "The new City College is expected to transform them."

Traub writes of students who can't engage in the simplest academic discourse. And though he describes lingering pockets of excellence such as the School of Engineering and the biomedical program--professional schools account for the majority of City grads nowadays--he dwells at greatest length on the remedial classes. As portrayed by Traub, many City students are semi-literates who can't express themselves in, or read, college-level English.

FEISTY AND LITERATE. For me, this was a shocker. City is famous as a training ground for writers and journalists. My two most recent editors have been City grads. One of my classmates from '75, Oscar Hijuelos, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. In the 1970s, City was renowned for writing workshops led by Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and the late Donald Barthelme, among others. Hijuelos attended the Barthelme workshop, and so did I. The college newspapers of our day were both feisty and literate.

City College officials assured me that Traub's book was grossly unfair. They noted that only a tiny percentage of students attend remedial classes, and they rejected the assertion that City's overall standards have been harmed by open admissions. City's vice-president for development, Paul Sherwin, told me that even though some students lack academic preparation, "on balance, they've improved tremendously since you were here"--including the quality of their written work.

I decided to see for myself. My perspective is different from what you would find among City's critics or even most alumni, since I was an open-admissions student. My high school record, albeit at the competitive Bronx High School of Science, was abysmal. Four years later, I graduated with a nearly straight-A average and a Phi Beta Kappa key. However, because of the perceived decline in standards, my City sheepskin was viewed with disdain, and my honors were given little weight by some potential employers. So I was sensitive to the criticism.

I started my quest by taking a walk around campus, and I was struck by the near total absence of the amenities that students of my generation took for granted. The center of academic life nowadays is a concrete-and-glass monstrosity called the North Academic Center, replete with nonworking escalators, windowless cubicles for classrooms, and all the charm of a prison.

ALMOST PAINFUL. I visited the cinder-block basement cubicles in the NAC that house the two undergraduate newspapers, The Campus and The Paper. Their output, alas, is as depressing as their surroundings. If a student newspaper is a gauge of a student body's ability to express itself in writing, City is in trouble. Aside from being little more than mouthpieces for the college administration, the papers were filled with grammatical errors and prose that was almost painful to read. One editor of The Campus, my old paper, told me that the lack of students with writing ability was so acute that he began there not as a cub reporter but as managing editor.

From the NAC, I went over to Shepard Hall to audit a course in advanced journalism. Surely there I would find evidence to rebut Traub. After all, the instructor had told me, these students are all journalism majors, all seniors, all ready to go out into the world and find jobs. The class assignment was to write about a City College issue of interest to the city at large. "Students are loathing from the quality of food served in the cafeteria," wrote one student. Another wrote: "There have been doubt expresses about the City College and the City University since the institution opened the administration."

I returned a few days later, this time to a creative-writing class, in hopes of finding some of the academic brilliance

of yore. And I did. Even though the students were mostly not English majors, their writing was excellent. As I entered the class, a few minutes late, a poem was being read. It was so good I thought it was being read from a textbook. But it was written by a student--an editor

of the loathsome Campus, in fact.

Perhaps this generation of City students is cut out more for poetry than for journalism. Or maybe another dynamic is at work. When I was at City, it was already two colleges--a remedial college and a college where excellence prevailed. But City was so large and anarchic that one didn't affect the other. So both Traub and City officials are right. City is overburdened with students who aren't making it. The college admits more than 2,000 students a year, but only about 1,200 manage to get diplomas. Yet as the writing class shows, there are plenty of talented students.

City officials I chatted with were reluctant to accept this depressing dichotomy. But the one who seemed most willing to acknowledge the situation--and deal with it--was Yolanda Moses, City's president for the past year. She is working with high schools to better prepare City-bound students and cites statistics showing that fewer and fewer students require remedial classes. But Moses and other administrators recognize that City is ultimately powerless to raise the academic quality of its entering freshmen.

There is a sign outside the Convent Avenue Baptist Church, at the crest of the 145th Street hill. It reads: "You Have Not Failed Until You Stop Trying." City College is trying, hard, to be the intellectual powerhouse of old. It hasn't failed. But success seems pretty far away.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.