Theses Doctoral

Guttersnipes' and 'Eliterates': City College in the Popular Imagination

Kay, Philip

Young people go to college not merely to equip themselves for competition in the workplace, but also to construct new identities and find a home in the world. This dissertation shows how, in the midst of wrenching social change, communities, too, use colleges in their struggle to reinvent and re-situate themselves in relation to other groups. As a case study of this symbolic process I focus on the City College of New York, the world's first tuition-free, publicly funded municipal college, erstwhile "Harvard of the Poor" and birthplace of affirmative action programs and "Open Admissions" in higher education. I examine five key moments between 1940 and 2000 when the college dominated the headlines and draw on journalistic accounts, memoirs, guidebooks, fiction, poetry, drama, songs, and interviews with former students and faculty to chart the institution's emergence as a cultural icon, a lightning rod, and the perennial focus of public controversy. In each instance a variety of actors from the Catholic Church to the New York Post mobilized popular perceptions in order to alternately shore up and erode support for City College and, in so doing, worked to reconfigure the larger New York public. The five episodes consist of the following: (1) In 1940 a state judge barred the philosopher Bertrand Russell from joining the faculty and a sweeping "investigation" followed that resulted in a purge of fifty allegedly Communist professors from the faculty. (2) Ten years later seven members of City College's national championship basketball team, all of them Jewish or black, were convicted of consorting with professional gamblers to fix games. (3) Then in 1969, in the midst of a mayoral primary, black and Puerto Rican students seeking greater access for members of the surrounding Harlem community seized control of City's South Campus and shut down the college for two tense weeks that were followed by a series of violent racial clashes. (4) Those events in turn ushered in the school's radical and hotly contested experiment with "Open Admissions" along with a decade of relentless media attacks, nostalgia for an imaginatively constructed golden age, and series of dramatic cuts to the college's budget and staff that occasioned the end of its century-old tradition of free tuition. (5) Finally, in 1991 one Afrocentric professor's outrageous remarks about Jews coupled with an accident at a student-sponsored fundraiser in the college gym that claimed nine young lives came---through the offices of the mass media---to stand for the anarchy and physical danger that seemed to be engulfing not only the institution but the city itself. Taken together these five moments, with their attendant tabloid scandals, ritual sacrifices, and manufactured crises, foreground the cultural dimension of City College's history and the construction---including the self-construction, even performance---of particular varieties of student and teacher, both past and present. Newspapers and their various publics were central to---indeed, constitutive of---the process by which different communities claimed disparate meanings for the institution and deployed those meanings toward their own, distinctive ends. The press provided the main stage upon which to enact bitter struggles and excommunication ceremonies and encouraged readers to use the college to reimagine themselves and their place in the changing city and nation.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Tucher, Andrea J.
Blackmar, Elizabeth S.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 28, 2013