Commentary

My 64 Years of Fighting for Innovation

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

September 04, 2011

At cocktail parties, my late wife usually referred to me as "my husband who can't hold a job." I suppose it is the truth. I am now 87, and I have held 16 different academic positions since allegedly "retiring" from the State University of New York in 1983.

Apparently, a passion for education is in my aging bones. I could never say no to teaching, leading, studying, administering. Curiosity, wanderlust, trouble-shooting, academic quagmires at the nosebleed level keep me coming back. It is surprising, even to me, that a three-decade-long retirement has now included academic presidencies, vice presidencies, and other leadership posts—many of them in an interim capacity, holding the fort—at six different higher-education institutions in New York.

Each time I thought I had completed the final chapter of my "official" work life, the phone would ring and there would be the voice of an academic connection asking me to fill an empty spot, often at a college where I had already done time. Oddly, with each passing retirement year, this magnetic pull toward my professional passion grew stronger and more insistent. No arbitrary new life phase could extinguish this chronic condition. And once I freed myself from the stereotypes and expectations of a well-earned "retirement," this new era became even more tightly entwined with my ingrained love of learning.

My education career began in 1947 at the relatively new New York State Institute for Applied Arts and Sciences (now the New York City College of Technology), where I was an assistant in the bursar's office. My hourly wage was $1.50. Eighteen years later, after working my way up and serving as the college's acting president, I landed a "real" presidency at a sister institution, the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Five years later, I departed for the State University of New York, to work as deputy to the chancellor.

In each of my jobs, I believed I was working to strengthen higher education for students. In the 1950s, I was advocating for the importance of the first community colleges in the state of New York. Now I am an advocate for nonprofit distance education for adult learners, in a computer age that the young paper-pushing bursar's assistant could never have envisioned.

Although I remain devoted to what I still believe is a noble cause, this should not be confused with a lack of outside interests, or some workaholic condition. At last count, I have visited almost 200 countries on seven continents in eight decades. In China in the 1940s, I was in the U.S. Army Air Corps, teaching Chinese military men to operate and maintain electronic weather equipment. In 1997, on a tour to Kaunas, Lithuania, my father's hometown, I was a student of the dark truth about the gunning down of my grandfather and uncles by the Nazis in July 1941. Since "retiring," I have taken up the art of stained glass. I've studied Chinese and Russian. I've indulged all my life in my love of music, but now my hearing is failing. I have true grief over this loss. But things could be worse, and I count my blessings.

What I have learned from my years in education, and in life, is that swimming against the traditional tide can result in muscle power, acceptance, and, eventually, a warm embrace. Perseverance pays, particularly when it comes to finding ways to provide education for adults who want to learn.

Those of us working on the fringes of higher education in the 1950s—at the time, community colleges had little respect—remember well the battle for acceptance of the two-year learning model. Early on, community colleges were dismissed out of hand as an unworkable education model, a direct threat to conventional higher education. Even in the 1970s, we were still striving for acceptance.

I recall one early 1970s meeting with all the presidents of the State University of New York campuses, including 30 community colleges. One four-year-college leader declared that his institution would not accept community-college graduates, and jeers rang out from his two-year-college colleagues. He tried to calm the waters by adding: "This is not against community colleges. We won't accept students from good colleges either." I am afraid he was not alone in his bias.

For those working at reputable institutions of online learning decades later, this might strike a familiar chord.

But we community-college advocates pressed on back then, knowing we were reaching a vital segment of our learning population: those adults without the resources for traditional college programs; those who needed to support a family while learning; those who were seeking a faster vocational path to the work force. We couldn't rely on marketing gimmicks or wish away skepticism. We had to prove our worth through results. Now community colleges are part of mainstream U.S. education, and are, increasingly, on the front lines of educating the nontraditional student. President Obama has made community colleges a centerpiece of his higher-education policy today.

Perhaps I am drawn to the good fight, or perhaps the alternatives available on the fringes attract me and my interest in adult learning. My most recent "retirement" job is in the field of nonprofit distance learning, and when I joined my current employer, distance learning was regarded, at best, with skepticism. Again, advocacy for an educational program serving working adults, with a nontraditional learning model, is my daily work.

The numbers of adults seeking education through online and distance learning are now astounding, and I am fortunate to be at the epicenter of a quality program. Ten to 15 years from now, federal scrutiny and regulation will have, I hope, separated high-quality programs like ours from questionable programs that offer little or no benefit. Perhaps as traditional programs now turn to colleges like mine for expertise in developing supplemental online options, distance learning will gain further respect. Today legitimate online-learning institutions are striving for a seat at the table as community colleges were in the 1950s.

Quite possibly the good fights in higher education are variations on a theme: tradition versus innovation. I've continuously witnessed how innovation has served to improve access: in the 1950s, when technical school provided vocational options for returning World War II veterans, and today, as my distance-learning college educates a new generation of nurses, engineers, business graduates, and liberal-arts majors, among others.

I can't wait for the next fine and noble tussle in higher education.

Murray Block is chief of staff at Excelsior College, in Albany, N.Y.