Commentary Magazine

Democratic Education for New York:
Equal Opportunity Through a State University System

Edward N. Saveth, who was active in the campaign that led to passage of the law for a New York state university, here appraises the significance of this achievement for democratic education.



A combination of diligent effort by alert citizens’ groups with some happy accidents of politics has yielded a state university system in New York. On February 16, the Temporary Commission on the Need for a State University, headed by Owen D. Young, submitted its report to the state legislature. Within six weeks, its findings were inscribed on the statute books—along with a law that outlaws racial discrimination in higher education.

As is only too often the case, the enactment of legislation of substantial long-term benefit to the ordinary citizen has been overshadowed by more dramatic political events—the presidential campaign, the grim international situation, etc. Indeed, throughout the struggle for public higher education in New York, those sections of the population that stood most to gain showed the least concern. Yet this successful struggle marks one of the most impressive recent gains toward one of our most fundamental of national aspirations—equality of educational opportunity.

What will New York’s state university system look like? The state university law of March 5, 1948 provides for the establishment within the state education department of a corporation to be known as the State University of New York which shall be responsible for the planning, supervision, and administration of the new institution. Until July 1, 1954 the state university shall be governed by a temporary board of trustees consisting of fifteen members appointed by the governor with the consent of the state senate. The trustees have the responsibility of carrying out the state university program, the main features of which are as follows: In the undergraduate field, four-year colleges will be established in areas that are not now adequately served. The establishment of the four-year colleges is to be accomplished by “the acquisition, absorption, or expansion of existing four-year liberal arts colleges, professional and graduate schools, research centers, universities or other facilities, or by the creation of new facilities or by the extension of financial assistance or grants to assist institutions. . . .” Two-year community or junior colleges, financed half by the state and half by the community, are to be set up for vocational and technical training as well as general education; it is expected that these will place particular emphasis on extension work for part-time students and adults. Two state medical centers will be founded, by taking over and expanding existing institutions and/or by creating new ones. The state will also provide financial support for teacher training in the four colleges in New York City.

Thus, the first steps have been taken toward a New York State university system that can challenge, in scope and completeness, that of any other state in the nation. But it is hardly the part of wisdom to relax effort. A state university system can be sustained, against the inevitable hostility of various vested educational interests, only if the public is solicitously aware of the precarious circumstances of its birth, and of the problems that this new-born system must face.



Whatever original inhibitions the Temporary Commission on the Need for a State University may have had—and it had plenty—New York’s vast unmet needs in the field of higher education could no longer be overlooked. Even before the invasion of education-hungry veterans, the antiquated structure of higher enducation emitted a disturbing medley of creaks and groans. In 1939, New York spent $5.07 per capita for the education of the age group 18-22. Only Georgia’s record ($3.83) among the forty-eight states was worse. If the base were extended to age 24, New York would rank last among the states.

True, New York possesses the largest number of private colleges. The majority of these are denominational in origin, and some still retain their church-related character. These institutions derive their support from student fees, endowments, gifts, and grants. Many have venerable traditions—extending in the case of Columbia University to the pre-Revolutionary era—and their educational and social prestige is bolstered by the wealth of their trustees. Along with denominationalism, wealth, tradition, and snobbery have frequently come undemocratic discriminatory practices. A survey conducted by the American Mercury alleges that private colleges in New York State and elsewhere seek “to hold down Jewish enrollments”; also accused of discrimination were the medical schools of Columbia, Cornell, University of Rochester, Long Island University, and Syracuse. This allegation seems to have been substantiated by the determined stand of the New York State Association of Colleges against legislation to outlaw discrimination in education.

Higher education in New York State’s private colleges is costlier than in other states: in the school year 1947-48 the student needed $1,306 for tuition, board, supplies, etc.—a sum quite beyond the average family budget. In the pre-war years, some thirty to fifty thousand students left New York State annually, many in search of low-cost education in other states. Even so, fully 47 per cent of those graduating in the top quarter of their high-school classes could not afford to go to college—a shocking waste of potential cultural resources. A report dealing with the cost of education in New York State prepared for the Board of Regents in 1937 concluded: “Predominantly, general collegiate education is accessible to the economically privileged rather than to the intellectually gifted regardless of wealth or poverty in the State of New York.”

At this moment, New York’s private colleges are less prepared than ever in their history to cope with the need for higher education. Already bursting at the seams with an expanded student body, they look with trepidation toward the future: by 1964, full-time college registration is expected to reach 276,000—and the present capacity is not quite two-thirds that amount.

If this gap is to be bridged, it is essential that the private colleges embark upon an extensive program of expansion. However, by their own testimony, they are helpless to do so. Typical is the plight of Colgate University, described by its president as confronting a “serious financial problem” resulting from increased costs and a simultaneous drop in interest rates on endowments. Barnard College, Dean Gildersleeve estimated in her annual report, faces a deficit of over $100,000 for 1947-48. The colleges have increased tuition fees as much as they dare—in the case of Columbia to twenty dollars a point—but continue to operate at a deficit. Nor will increased enrollment help matters. Since tuition fees cover only part of the cost of education, the private colleges do not stand to profit significantly by admitting additional students. That is why, on numerous college campuses, there is feverish fund-raising activity.



In the struggle for gifts and endowment funds, not all the private colleges are going to survive; the smaller ones, especially, face a growing danger. It is not surprising, therefore, that voices should be heard appealing for federal assistance to the private colleges (though the colleges themselves are nervously apprehensive at the possibility of becoming dependent on government funds). However, the recent report of President Truman’s Committee on Higher Education recommended a comprehensive public-aid program for publicly supported colleges and universities, expressly excluding private colleges. Adopting the principle that federal funds should be appropriated only for institutions under public control, the majority of the committee held that acceptance of public funds must carry with it acceptance of the right of the electorate to exercise review and control of the policies and procedures of these institutions.

Two representatives of the private colleges on the President’s Committee—the Very Reverend Frederick G. Hochwalt, Director of Higher Education at the National Welfare Council, and Dr. Martin R. P. McGuire, dean of the Graduate School of the Catholic University of America—have chosen to regard abundant and low-cost (when not free) education in public colleges as a direct menace to the existence of the private colleges. This interpretation, it is true, is not entirely without foundation: the public colleges might offer embarrassing competition to their private counterparts. But since the problem of the private colleges is obviously one of endowments rather than enrollment, the public college is only a secondary complication to a patient already suffering from acute economic illness.

In the debates preceding adoption of the state university law, Chancellor William J. Wallin of the New York State Board of Regents loudly echoed the fears of the private colleges. The Regents, it should be said, have invariably taken the interests of the private colleges to heart. As early as 1857, a committee of the state legislature criticized them for misinterpreting their original function—which was to establish a public university; and in 1910 Commissioner of Education Draper accused the Regents of being derelict for not having fulfilled their statutory obligation—established in the 8th century—of maintaining public control over Columbia University. More recently, the Regents have afforded New York’s colleges every latitude in their operations and have done nothing to reduce the cost of higher education or to prepare the colleges for the present crisis.

Mr. Wallin’s apprehensions were shared by the Catholic colleges and the private colleges in the Association of Colleges and Universities of the State of New York. These groups were sufficiently influential to have the state university bill amended in the closing days of the legislative session. The trustees of the state university were directed, in the drawing up of plans and recommendations, to provide full opportunity “for existing public and private institutions to be heard.” They were also admonished to “recognize and foster the historical development of higher education in the state, which has been accomplished through the establishment and encouragement of private institutions.” A third amendment revealed, however, that the interests of the private colleges and the denominational colleges were not entirely identical. The denominational schools, under the provisions of the state constitution, are expressly denied financial assistance from the state. This third amendment, included in the law through the influence of the denominational colleges, denies such assistance to the private colleges as well.

None of these amendments impairs the authority of the trustees to implement the recommendations of the Young commission. They are, in effect, resolutions that do not commit the trustees to any action that they might not have taken of their own accord in the normal procedure of establishing a state university system. Yet the fact that they were introduced and enacted in the frantic closing days of a harried legislative session is indicative of the strength of the private colleges in New York State.



Traditionally, it must be remembered, it has been the private rather than the publicly-supported college which has been the capstone of higher education in New York State. Whenever the problem of providing more higher education arose in the past, solutions were evolved within the existing framework of private education.

The earliest of these solutions took the form—by now familiar—of liberal financial assistance. In the first half of the 19th cenury, about a dozen private colleges received from the legislature grants of money, land, or authority to operate lotteries which produced considerable income. Additional financial aid was forthcoming as a result of the federal Morrill legislation of 1862, offering grants of land to the states for the establishment of colleges of agricultural and mechanical arts. This law laid the foundations of many of our state universities, especially in the West. But in New York, the land grant was turned over to the newly-founded Cornell University, with the proviso that the university establish one hundred and fifty scholarships. Although the value of these scholarships was considerably larger than the original grant, valued at $600,000, Cornell, by shrewd management, was able within two decades to increase it until it provided an endowment of $6,000,000.

The system of state scholarships, introduced in 1913, also served to benefit the private colleges by subsidizing increased enrollment. Five scholarships, carrying a stipend of one hundred dollars a year for four years, were awarded in each assembly district to those who stood highest in Regents examinations. Governor Sulzer, in his message approving this law, made it clear that “when all scholarships are finally filled, the expense to the state will be practically the equivalent of the maintenance of a state university.” Beginning in 1944, the State embarked upon a much-extended scholarship program for veterans of either World War.

Only in fields where the private colleges have been reluctant to fill an educational need, has the legislature set up state-supported schools and colleges. There are today eleven state teachers colleges which residents of New York State may attend without paying tuition. There is a state Maritime Academy and six state-supported institutes of agriculture and technology. There is also a system of “contract colleges”: schools of agriculture, home economics, veterinary medicine, labor and industrial relations at Cornell, the School of Ceramics at Alfred, the School of Forestry at Syracuse—all maintained at state expense.

This mere filling in of gaps in privately-supported higher education has resulted in a crazy-quilt pattern, lacking in logic and integration. The annual report of the State Education Department for 1937 emphasized the system’s inconsistencies. The state acknowledges “its responsibility for the collegiate and professional training of farmers, housewives, veterinarians, foresters, teachers and ceramic artists, ceramic technologists and ceramic engineers. It acknowledges no responsibility for the training of architects, professional nurses, optometrists, chiropodists and others in allied callings. . . . Granted that it is a sound function of the state to train teachers and agriculturists, why is it proper and necessary to train veterinarians and not doctors, dentists, optometrists and chiropodists?”

Outright grants to colleges, state scholarships, the establishment of “contract” institutions—these are the makeshifts that have been relied upon to dodge the issue of a state-university system in New York. Even at present, when the need for a fundamental change in the pattern of higher education in New York State is obvious, there have been powerful voices stubbornly insisting on additional patchwork. Chancellor William J. Wallin of the Board of Regents—whose opposition to a state university system has already been noted—proposed the creation of twelve thousand scholarships at three hundred and fifty dollars a year. Wallin also urged that the state build a series of institutes of applied arts which would offer two-year vocational—not academic—training.

This attitude reaffirmed, by implication and quite possibly by design, the aristocratic conception of a liberal arts education which has been consistently challenged in the United States by the rise of the state universities. It should be remembered that a good many of our state universities began, under the terms of the Morrill grant, as institutes of agricultural and mechanical arts; later on in their development, liberal arts and professional schools were added to serve the needs of the community on various levels. The desire of the Regents to separate liberal arts education from vocational education while maintaining the liberal arts program as the privilege of a selected minority, runs directly counter to this national trend.

The preliminary recommendations of the Temporary Commission in the fall of 1947—never officially made public—went a considerable distance toward appeasing the Regents. The commission’s reported intention was to stop short of recommending a state university and to propose instead a series of junior or community colleges offering two-year courses, in which the main—though not exclusive—emphasis would be on vocational training; the academic student in these colleges would be able to qualify for a state scholarship that would permit him to complete the last two years of study in one of the private colleges. The news of this plan was extremely discouraging to the friends of a bona-fide state university. For while it is true that the commission’s plans went further than the Board of Regents relished, it would have meant a truncated system of state-supported higher education which the private colleges, by virtue of their control over the admission of third-year students, would inevitably dominate.



This Was the outlook of the commission around October and November, 1947. By late December and early January, certain events caused this outlook to be revised.

There was, first of all, the report of President Truman’s Committee on Higher Education, the first volume of which was released on December 15. Its far-reaching program made the recommendations of the Young Commission look insignificant. If Governor Dewey were to cross swords with President Truman in the 1948 political arena, he could not afford to leave himself vulnerable on the matter of education.

The supporters of a state university system also had the assistance of a stroke of luck. By chance, the research findings of the staff of the commission—which bore very favorably on the idea of a state university and which the commission had been at some pains to keep private—came into the hands of Benjamin Fine, education editor of the New York Times. Fine promptly published them, making it difficult for the commission to disregard the known findings of its own staff.

In addition, the various minority groups in the metropolitan areas belatedly awoke to the merits of the state university. Initially, there had been fears that a state university might be transformed into a “ghetto” institution, accommodating almost exclusively those candidates for college entrance who had been rejected by the private colleges on “racial” or religious grounds. The state university project was further distrusted as an easy “out” for politicians on the touchy issue of anti-discrimination legislation in higher education. It was only after many weary hours over the conference table that the realization dawned that here was no mere subterfuge, but an institution desirable for the substantial relief it offered and for the promise it held for democratic education.

Also, the commission’s announcement that it was friendly toward a state law against discrimination in addition to a state university helped lay the specter of a “ghetto-university.” The Quinn-Olliffe Act, as finally enacted by the legislature in accordance with the recommendation of the Young Commission, makes it an unfair educational practice for a post-secondary school, which is not denominational, “to exclude or limit or otherwise discriminate against any person or persons seeking admission as students . . . because of race, religion, creed, color, or national origin.” The act authorizes the Commissioner of Education to halt unfair practices, either on his own initiative or in consequence of a petition filed by an aggrieved individual. If the Commissioner’s informal efforts at adjustment between the aggrieved individual and the university fail, the Commissioner will refer the matter to the Board of Regents, “which shall issue” a complaint setting forth the unfair educational practices charged, the complaint to be followed by a public hearing before the Regents. After hearing the facts, the Regents will either dismiss the complaint or direct the school to cease and desist from the unfair practices found. Such orders will be enforceable in conventional court proceedings.

The press helped to confuse the public mind by spotlighting the discrimination aspect of the state’s educational problem. On January 23, 1946 a bill was introduced into the legislature by the Democrats for the establishment of a state university. Unfortunately, this came hard upon the heels of a “Report on Discrimination in Institutions of Higher Learning” prepared by the Mayor’s Committee on Unity in New York City. The New York Times headlined its account of the bill as follows: “State University Costing $50,000,000 Asked to Fight Bias,” and PM and the Post followed suit.

The stress on this theme was unfortunate; it was hardly sound strategy to seek the crucial support of upstate rural New Yorkers, overwhelmingly Protestant, by underscoring the needs of downstate urban Catholics, Negroes and Jews, when the educational needs of their own young people were even more importantly involved.



In Public testimony before the Temporary I Commission on October 20, former Governor Herbert H. Lehman for the American Jewish Committee, Judge Meier Steinbrink for the Anti-Defamation League, and Rabbi Stephen Wise for the American Jewish Congress, set forth extremely cogent arguments for the need for a state university. There were also representatives from the Urban League, the Jewish War Veterans, and so on. But the commissioners heard little that indicated the interest of the rural Protestant element which forms the backbone of the upstate communities. Moreover, the Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans, who are important minority groups in several upstate cities, went unrepresented.

Ironically, to the end, the poor and middling-income farmer, the factory worker and mechanic in Buffalo and Syracuse—who have the most to gain both for themselves and their children by the establishment of a state university—showed themselves most apathetic on the issue. Metropolitan New York, with a system of free municipal colleges, does relatively better by its lower-income groups than is the case upstate where such facilities are non-existent. Yet, with the exception of the Mayor of Utica and a representative of the Empire State Teachers’ Association, upstate was silent.



When all is said and done, the movement for a state university system has succeeded even beyond the expectations of the groups that supported it. A myriad of details remain to be worked out—it is still impossible to say, for example, how many students the system will accommodate—but the main battle has been won: New York has at last opened the way towards a full development of the democratic principle in higher education.

Without minimizing efforts of a small band of enthusiasts for broader educational opportunity, undoubtedly the general political situation tipped the balance.

As Republican nominee for the Presidency, Governor Dewey’s candidacy will be aided not a little by the forty-seven electoral votes of New York State. His backers have not forgotten that he did not carry the state against Roosevelt in 1944. This year, against the weaker candidacy of President Truman and abetted by Henry Wallace’s independent campaign, he has an excellent chance—provided that he gets sufficient support downstate, stronghold of the minority groups.

Perhaps this victory has come with too much freakish facility to realize its almost revolutionary significance for education in general, and not merely for New York State. In a commencement address delivered at the University of Indiana in 1910, Frederick Jackson Turner indicated how the state university has made for greater democracy in America. Breaking down the aristocratic conceptions of a higher education, the state university, said Turner, opened careers to the talents of c He likened the state university to a deep shaft penetrating the socio-economic hierarchy and tapping ability from all segments of the population. This was the channel by which farm boys become Supreme Court justices, by which poor city lads climbed the ladder to economic success, by which the children of immigrants realized an important aspect of the promise of America.

From the state universities, Turner pointed out, came significant innovations in the college curriculum which awarded fuller recognition to scientific and applied studies. There the union of vocational and academic work in the same institution found encouragement, as well as the development of agricultural and engineering colleges and business courses, the training of lawyers, administrators, public men, journalists—all under the ideal of service to democracy.



Turner painted a glowing picture of the State university as a democratic institution. However, it is also true that certain of our state universities are political strongholds; that they can be pressured for good or evil by powerful community interests. It was the municipally operated College of the City of New York which banned the mathematician Bertrand Russell from its campus because of his unorthodox views on the institution of marriage. Again in 1940, the municipal colleges of New York City were the objects of a most vicious red hunt. The state universities of Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia have all been made pawns of the political struggle within these states. On the other hand, one should be mindful of the enviable reputations of private institutions such as Columbia and Harvard, with respect to academic freedom and unfettered scholarship. Not only will it take a good deal of vigilance to keep the New York state university system from becoming a political football, but the administrators of the constituent colleges will need to incorporate into their policies the venerable tradition of academic freedom and human dignity that the private colleges have developed.

Two World Wars and the atom bomb have made the problems of leadership and training more crucial than ever before. Our social problems are certainly no less pressing than when Turner spoke. Actually, the training of the American people to its maximum potential is so vast a project as to require cooperation of public and private educational institutions. In carrying out their share of this undertaking, the private colleges of New York are more certain of their ground, safer in their traditions than New York’s new state university, which has yet to be shaped by the people who brought this institution into being. It remains to be seen how zealously the people of New York will guard their new educational system against the inroads of politicians, economy-minded legislators, and those who would throttle academic freedom. Only an alert, enlightened public opinion can guarantee the fulfillment of its promise for democratic higher education.



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