Urban Universities in a Challenged America

Two decades ago when I first began as president of George Washington University, I looked for a way to reach out to the people of the city in which my institution is located. I wanted to demonstrate that GW was of Washington as well as in Washington, where it had been sited since 1821.

Following advice I received from the late legendary President Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College, about how to introduce oneself to the African-American community, I attended Sunday services at many black churches on a regular basis for several months. I soon got to know lots of people and made friendships that continue to this day. Pastors would regularly introduce me to the church at the conclusion of the service and ask me to say a few words. Although the congregants represented all socio-economic backgrounds, there was a proportion that might not necessarily find their way to attend GW with its formidable tuition.

One day, thinking about my own undergraduate experience at Columbia, where I had a roommate attending free on a grant for talented New York residents called the Pulitzer Scholarship, after the publisher who had endowed them, I announced that GW would start a similar program for valedictorians and other honor students from D.C. high schools to be known as 21st Century Scholars. These provide full tuition, fees, books, room and board, and other academic expenses, and continue for four years as long as academic performance is maintained. Last Friday, the scholarships were announced for 2008. Each is now worth more than $200,000. Nine exceptional seniors were celebrated. The mayor, the chancellor of the D.C. public schools, and my successor, GW President Steven Knapp were in attendance. Ten years ago, when I finished my first decade as president of GW, the university’s board of trustees renamed the grants as Trachtenberg Scholarships. They are “just one example of GW’s strong commitment,” Knapp said, “to the success of the D.C. public schools.”

I’ve always seen these awards as investment in the future leadership of the District of Columbia. They are of course only one example of what the university does for and with the city. Since the program began in 1989, including the class of 2012, the total Trachtenberg scholarships amount to more than $13-million. They, along with other grants and work-study programs, make GW the largest single post-secondary contributor of aid to students from the District of Columbia. I hope in some small way this initiative reflects a generational hand-off, the benefit I myself received from my undergraduate education now provided to the young.

When I think of the role that urban public and independent universities have played in my life, some very strong memories fill my mind. Where and when I grew up, for example — in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, during the 1940s and 50s — the City University of New York had a significance not too different from that of Mount Olympus in Ancient Greek mythology, while Columbia University floated well above the clouds themselves.

City, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges meant opportunity, the gates through which first, or second, generation immigrants passed to make it all the way through to being teachers, accountants, professors, doctors, lawyers, or any other kind of professionals. As for me personally, the fact that I was admitted to Columbia College in 1955 — the first member of my immediate family to go to college — was a wonder of social mobility that, as far as my 18-year-old self was concerned, could have jumped out of an epic poem. Not to mention that Columbia’s Italianate campus made even City College’s neo-Gothic look seem a bit provincial.

Urban universities in the United States have always been subject to the forces of demographic waves. From the portals of Los Angeles to New York, from New Orleans to Detroit, generation upon generation of newly arrived immigrants from around the world fill the streets and crowd into apartments. And with equal predictability, newly assimilated groups — one or two generations after their arrival on our shores, move out of the asphalt streets of the city in search of greener pastures, the sign and symbol of the transition to the rising middle class.

For the most part, first-generation children attend nearby public colleges and universities within the boundaries of their cities in order to gain the skills and education necessary to prepare for jobs and careers that will change their lives. And in almost every city, at least one independent school plays a similar role: Columbia, USC, Boston University, Temple, University of Pennsylvania, Wayne State, Chicago, George Washington, to name a sampling.

These urban schools represent a very successful adaptation to a distinctly non-pluralistic world. In the decades before the Second World War, a time when the lifestyle available in today’s middle- and upper-middle-income suburbs was confined to a very small minority of Americans, access to that level of prosperity was routinely denied to those who had recently or even not-so-recently arrived in this country from abroad. A school that opened to even a limited extent the doors that would otherwise have been completely shut was a school that stimulated a lot of passion and protectiveness in its students, in the families of those students, and in its alumni. Attending university was a ticket to the new world, to life outside of the immigrant ghetto.

When I entered Columbia, a large percentage of my classmates were residents of the City of New York; we traveled to class on the first day by subway and bus. And for four years — and longer if we went on to graduate school — we worked hard and planned our escape from the confines of the city. We wanted to leave the limitations of our parents and grandparents behind. Years later, our children, when and if they choose to attend their fathers’ alma mater, do so from the suburban settings to which most of my classmates moved just as soon as they could afford to do so.

Of course, today social mobility has come full cycle. No longer are college students trying to flee the city. For my children’s generation financial success would be to afford the newly converted condominium apartment in the buildings my relatives inhabited when they were tenement housing!

A large proportion of the East-coast immigrants of the 1920s, 30s and 40s came from Eastern Europe. The past 50 years have seen an unprecedented influx of immigrants from the Pacific Rim countries, Latin America, Russia, and Africa. And we have developed a full understanding of how much “internal assimilation” we must accomplish if our society is not to falter and stagnate. So much of the industrialized world is betting that we will never be able to integrate our minority groups into the middle and upper reaches of American economy — our failure will be opportunity for another country to pull ahead. Any chance we have of proving the competition wrong rests to a significant extent on the role played by the urban public and private universities, and the opportunities they are able to offer their students. For that is where the bulk of our nation’s new immigrants first matriculate.

Today, potential educated personnel from inner-city backgrounds are desperately needed for the recovery and long-term competitiveness of the American economy. Our urban public and private universities, through partnerships or alone, have an obligation to continue the road toward social upward mobility by educating, in the broadest sense of that term, those who have newly arrived on our shores.

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