Commentary Magazine


Academic Turmoil, by Theodore L. Gross

Open Admissions Revised

Academic Turmoil: The Reality and Promise of Open Education.
by Theodore L. Gross.
Anchor Press/Doubleday. 250 pp. $10.95.

In 1978 Theodore L. Gross, then a dean at the City College of New York, published an article in Saturday Review that raised a storm of protest over its criticisms of his campus’s Open Admissions program. Academic Turmoil tells the story of how the article brought forth student and faculty attacks on Gross as a turncoat and racist, how those who agreed with him kept silent out of fear, and how in the end the college’s president, with whom he had maintained a close working relationship, fired him.

Ostensibly this is a story of probity and lonely courage. “It is always safer to remain silent,” Gross moralizes about others. But there is little in Academic Turmoil to offend anyone—certainly nothing that could threaten Gross’s dismissal by the president of Pennsylvania State University, where he is now the provost. On the contrary, without explicitly admitting it, his book takes back much of what he wrote in the article. As a result, the intellectual and moral lessons that he draws apply with peculiar force to himself, and in ways that he seems not to have imagined.

Gross’s article detailed the failures of Open Admissions. Students were advancing through college without “understanding the most basic texts.” The instructors were demoralized, and they had capitulated to the academically fraudulent demand by activist student and faculty groups for special ethnic-studies departments (where, we learn, students could more easily secure passing grades).

No matter which instructional techniques had been tried by the faculty, no matter how great its good will, the Open Admissions students for the most part could not be raised to “competence,” or in many cases to “literacy.” The fault, Gross theorized, lay in their culturally deprived backgrounds. The disadvantages which they brought with them to college could not possibly be overcome by a few short years of remediation. The college nevertheless devoted most of its energies to remediation. There followed in short order a decline of academic standards and transfers by most of the qualified students to other colleges. In the end, neither the traditional responsibilities of a university nor the new challenge of Open Admissions could be met.

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Gross’s account of the campus reaction to his article, which included letters of outrage and student demonstrations, is a familiar version of post-1960′s academic confusion and fatuity. Inevitably, Gross became the scapegoat of the next campus issue, the plan to administer a so-called skills test. For students to remain in school at the end of their second year in college, they would have had to achieve literacy on the level of the second year in high school. A group of students reasoned that only a racist could have conceived such a test, and they came chanting to the dean’s office: “Gross, you liar, we’ll set your ass on fire.”

Given such consequences of Open Admissions as this, it comes as a surprise that Gross now presents himself as the program’s enthusiastic advocate. Taking it as an uncontestable truism that the program is a logical outgrowth of American democratic principles—surely a highly debatable proposition—Gross asks rhetorically, “Is there ultimately any choice” but to accept such a program? Employing similar logic while discussing his attempts to raise money from skeptical alumni, he remarks that most of them “were smart enough to realize that Open Admissions was an inevitable responsibility of the City College.” Gross’s insistence on presenting himself as the ongoing champion of a program whose weaknesses he once exposed, and which had in fact been suspended at the time he wrote his article, has the appearance of a politically rather than an intellectually motivated argument.

To be sure, Gross does give some hint of having changed his outlook:

Now that time has passed, I regretted having used an indiscreet sentence here, an unnecessarily hard phrase there. By allowing only one aspect of a complex experience like Open Admissions to be published, I had been unfair to my own complex views.

This is high-sounding, but it fails to reveal that in the passage from article to book, offending statements have simply been deleted. Without either defending or repudiating what he originally wrote, Gross has quietly capitulated to the “inevitable.”

Gross’s trimming of his article, as the act should perhaps be described, has dulled its polemical edge and rendered it inoffensive to all parties in the controversy. Thus, the teachers’ union and its “affirmative-action” hiring program (no longer mentioned in ironic quotation marks) do not appear in the book as “additional contributions to mediocrity.” Nor does it any longer appear that “minorities, including now impatient women, used affirmative action to leap into positions of power or to retain their jobs.” Of the meeting at which ethnic-studies departments were pushed through, Gross no longer writes that “the intention was cultural intimidation of the white faculty, and the intention was fulfilled.” Nor does he retain the crucial observation, somewhat indirectly put even in the article, that on account of the climate of fear at City College, telling the truth about Open Admissions “was impossible.”

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In place of these insights, Theodore Gross now asks “whose truth” he had told in his article. He has, that is to say, come to accept the premise of his detractors that the truth is relative. From this vantage point he is now able to conclude that the failure of Open Admissions and his own firing were both the result of attacks by “reactionary forces.” These forces, by bringing the program under fire with their criticisms, supposedly pushed the college into an unfortunate shift of its energies from education to public relations. Yet Gross has already shown that the critics of Open Admissions never had any influence at City College. Manifestly, he was fired not because of “a subtle incursion that was the result of our conservative 70′s,” but something quite the opposite of this: outright incursions on freedom of expression by self-styled leftist supporters of Open Admissions.

At one point Gross poignantly recounts his wry feeling when James Baldwin came to speak at City College. Gross had modeled the opening sentences of his article on this black writer’s vivid style and now was being labeled a racist for having done so. In those sentences the students who habitually congregated outside Gross’s office were seen,

playing radios, simulating sex, languidly moving back and forth to classes, dancing and singing, eating and studying and sleeping and drinking from soda cans or from beer bottles wrapped in brown paper bags.

No longer moving languidly, the same students in the same place are now described as “studying texts” and “preparing papers,” their only amusement being the now innocuously phrased act of “playing the radio.”

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Gross makes a point of deploring the dishonest prose typically used for discussing education. He describes “a kind of soporific language that mitigates meaning and purpose and certainly passion. Academic bureaucratize [sic]—the language of memoranda.” Apparently without his realizing it, though, Academic Turmoil, which comes complete with “chairpersons” and a “spokesperson,” represents a move precisely in this direction.

Here, then, is an instructive case. Despite the protection of tenure, an initially courageous and objective voice has been compromised. The “internal intimidation” that Gross believed would infect the campus if he was fired, has proven capable of spreading further than he suspected. Education, race, women, ethnic studies—these indeed turn out to be “deeply controversial issues upon which all who wish to survive speak euphemistically.”

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