The latest issue of Harvard Magazine arrived recently with a most astonishing and eye-catching cover photo of the University’s new president. Claudine Gay, the new leader of this legendary institution, is a Black woman! Even just a few decades ago such an outcome was unimaginable. She’s eminently qualified for the position, based on her academic achievements and on her successful tenure as Dean of the University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, a position far more complex and challenging than the presidency of most colleges with fewer moving parts than Harvard.
There’s much to praise about Dr. Gay’s selection, but I want to focus on one detail in her family history that appears early in the article. Both her parents emigrated to this country from Haiti. Each of them was able to enroll in The City College of New York (CCNY) which enabled her mother to become a nurse and her father to emerge as a Civil Engineer. This detail caught my eye because City College is my alma mater, and I am forever indebted to it for putting me on the path to a successful professional life, one that would not have been possible without the tuition-free education it provided.
The college offered me, and for Dr. Gay’s parents, a leg up on the economic ladder that made possible her attendance at more elite institutions and her eventual ascendance to her current position. CCNY and the other campuses of The City University are no longer tuition-free, but the costs remain modest, compared even to other public universities. When I skim through the issues of the school’s magazine which arrives in my mailbox alongside that of Harvard’s, I see another generation of students in search of that same leg up – students of color, students from immigrant families. In my generation, that population was heavily weighted toward working-class Jewish families, but the dynamic was the same – students and families in search of a pathway to mobility that would result in a better life for future generations. The students at City College were a hungry bunch, eager to learn, read, argue and debate with an intensity that would be hard to imagine in schools serving a more privileged population. I would guess that some of that same intensity carries over to the current population, although it may manifest itself in different ways.
Since the Supreme Court’s disappointing decision in effect eliminating affirmative action, I’ve been thinking about opportunities for mobility that weren’t called affirmative action but had the same effect of opening doors that were previously shut tight. The GI Bill enabled many poor and working-class Americans, especially if you were white, to pay the tuition to a wide range of colleges. In the process it swelled the ranks of the middle class, contributing to a more robust economy. Students attending state universities could take advantage of tuitions far more modest than most private academic institutions. When I was teaching in a program for “gifted” students in Houston, there was a quota system that gave Black and Latino students a better shot at getting on a path to college than they would have had in their neighborhood high schools. Oh horrors! A quota system! you may say, but in this instance it was a tool for inclusion rather than exclusion.
Almost all these doors to mobility have closed. Affirmative action and the quota system I described have fallen victim to court decrees. The state colleges and universities have been forced to raise their tuitions as the states have drastically cut their funding for higher education. The only door that remains open is the GI Bill, although the level of benefits depends on length of service and whether you’re attending a public or private university.
In recent years, there have been distressing studies concluding that our “land of opportunity” is not living up to its name. The chances of moving above the class into which you were born have narrowed. Other countries have higher mobility numbers than we do. Individual success stories are heart-warming and encouraging, but the data indicates that they are far rarer than they could/should be.
We need more stories like those of Dr. Gay’s family if we want to avoid becoming a society in which large segments of our population feel trapped and resentful. I fear than many of our current supporters of populist politics are already there.
Footnote: I’m writing this on the day after Labor Day. Growing up in New York, Labor Day marked the real end of summer because it signaled the imminent opening of school. It was considered every student’s and every teacher’s God-given right to vacation until after Labor Day. I believe that this is still true in NYC, but most of the country has moved to earlier and earlier start dates. Those areas are already deep into their academic years. Whether you’re already hungry for a break or just getting started, I wish you an engaging and successful school year, freer of the stress and anxiety that these past few years have brought.