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The Way We Were

February 21, 2007

But for the talent and efforts of two men, there might never have been a BMCC.

Dr. Gustave G. Rosenberg was Chair of the Board of Higher Education in 1962 when he went before the New York City Board of Estimate to argue for the creation of a new community college. The CUNY system had four such institutions at the time – one in every borough except Manhattan, which nonetheless was home to nearly one-fifth of the city’s entire 17-year-old population. “A substantial number of these young people come from the less-advantaged groups of citizens,” Rosenberg said. “Lifting [their] educational and vocational horizons…is perhaps the most challenging need facing Manhattan today.”

A year later, BMCC was founded. And Martin Dworkis became its first president.

A dynamic presenceA “big, warmhearted man” in the words of The New York Times, it was Dworkis whose charisma, vision and administrative ability moved the college from birth through infancy. Dworkis came to BMCC following a long and distinguished teaching career at NYU and a somewhat briefer political venture in 1962, when he ran for Congress in the 17th Congressional District on the Democratic-Liberal ticket. (He lost by 50,000 votes to the incumbent, John V. Lindsay, who went on to be Mayor.)

After Dworkis’s tragic death at the age of 46 two years later, he was succeeded by Dr. Murray H. Block. BMCC’s 1965 student yearbook notes that “his steady hand behind the academic, social and political activities has allowed us the freedom to pursue truth without interference.”

The new college set up shop in an office building on West 51 Street in July 1964, giving it less than two months to enroll a student body and ready its classrooms and laboratories for the fall opening. Given BMCC’s current enrollment, it is hard to believe that the college began with only 437 students and a faculty of 28 (winnowed down from 1,150 applicants). There were no science labs, so BMCC used Hunter College’s; lacking physical education facilities, the school worked out an arrangement with the Parks Department.

Six curriculums, three divisionsAccording to the 1964-1965 Freshman Handbook, BMCC’s six curriculums were organized in three divisions in its first year – Liberal Arts, Business Administration and Public Health and Safety, which offered a degree in Correction Administration (housed on Rikers Island). A fourth division, Communications Technologies, would debut in 1965.

In those early days, Liberal Arts had the largest number of students, with 131, followed by Accounting with 97 and Correction Administration with 94. Just under a third of the students came from Manhattan; others commuted from the outer boroughs, Westchester, Nassau County and New Jersey. Tuition was free for city residents; non-residents paid $100 per term.

During its first year, BMCC received nearly $500,000 in grants under the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act and the 1963 Vocational Act. The money funded several initiatives, making BMCC the only CUNY college to be designated “experimental.” Its most unusual conceptual feature was the replacement of the traditional two-semester plan with the a quarter system. Among other benefits, the change enabled students in BMCC’s Cooperative Education Program to coordinate their schedules with the needs of local employers.

Reaching out By 1965, BMCC was making its mark as an educational innovator. That year it signed a tentative agreement for an experimental educational television program with Channels 13 and 31. Meanwhile, it held discussions with the City Department of Hospitals as well as with private hospitals regarding future nursing and paramedical curriculums. A dialogue with the NYC Department of Personnel and the U.S. Civil Service Commission led to proposals for adult education programs for municipal and federal personnel. And, under the aegis of the City Administrator’s Office, the school weighed the feasibility of proposed degree programs in film and photography.

The 19-page Freshman Handbook offers interesting insights into the mores of the day. Consider its guidance on campus dress: “BMCC is located in the heart of a major business district. The world of business has established standards of dress for us. It is mandatory that we dress appropriately to build our own personal image and the image of BMCC. YOUR ATTIRE COULD BE A PASSPORT TO A JOB FOR YOU and other BMCC students.”

By the late 1970s, the college had come far since the Rosenberg and Dworkis years and was on a sound footing. But fiscal anxieties, then as now, were always present. Filed in the archives is a 1979 eviction petition from Joint Venture, a realtor that had sued the City of New York for $198,550.93 relating to back rent on the land occupied by BMCC.

The problem was presumably solved. But in this case, the archives are silent.


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