Renewing CUNY

The Economist provides its own kind of look at CUNY’s history and renewal.

Until the 1960s, a good case could be made that the best deal in American tertiary education was to be found not in Cambridge or Palo Alto, but in Harlem, at a small public school called City College, the core of CUNY. America’s first free municipal university, founded in 1847, offered its services to everyone bright enough to meet its gruelling standards.

City’s golden era came in the last century, when America’s best known colleges restricted the number of Jewish students they would admit at exactly the time when New York was teeming with the bright children of poor Jewish immigrants. In 1933-54 City produced nine future Nobel laureates, including the 2005 winner for economics, Robert Aumann (who graduated in 1950); Hunter, its affiliated former women’s college, produced two, and a sister branch in Brooklyn produced one. City educated Felix Frankfurter, a pivotal figure on the Supreme Court (class of 1902), Ira Gershwin (1918), Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine (1934) and Robert Kahn, an architect of the internet (1960). A left-wing place in the 1930s and 1940s, City spawned many of the neo-conservative intellectuals who would later swing to the right, such as Irving Kristol (class of 1940, extra-curricular activity: anti-war club), Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer.

What went wrong? Put simply, City dropped its standards. It was partly to do with demography, partly to do with earnest muddleheadedness.