The City College of New York (CCNY), located in Harlem’s Hamilton Heights neighborhood, is a public institution that has long served immigrants and first-generation college students from families of modest means. Once hailed as the “Harvard of the working class,” CCNY was a cradle for distinguished intellectuals (Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Kristol, Sidney Hook), prominent politicians (Abe Beame, Herman Badillo, Robert Wagner, Sr.), and scientists (Andrew Grove, Arno Penzias, Herbert Hauptman). CCNY’s list of outstanding alumni also includes a number of Nobel laureates.
After decades of decline, CCNY is currently undergoing a renaissance. Enrollment recently surpassed 15,000 for the first time since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s forced New York State to take over the city’s public university system. Also, though City College had long lagged in private fund-raising, endowments shot up under its last president, Gregory Williams. Intel cofounder Grove helped establish the Grove School of Engineering with a $26 million gift in 2005. The rags-to-riches CCNY alumnus Bernard Spitzer (father of Eliot) endowed a school of architecture. In 2008, the white-shoe law firm Skadden Arps donated $10 million to establish an undergraduate legal-studies program.
Another sign of better days at CCNY is its announcement that its Division of Social Sciences will be renamed the Colin L. Powell School of Civic and Global Leadership. The Powell School boasts a capital infusion of $30 million and will house the departments of anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology, along with a few “studies” programs and institutes. Its endowment, raised from private benefactors through Powell’s efforts, will pay for the rehabilitation of buildings and for new educational and research opportunities for students and faculty.
The opening of the Powell School shows an admirable willingness to buck the political correctness so prevalent on college campuses. It’s surprising that the school’s faculty and administration saw fit to name the college’s largest division—over a third of CCNY’s graduates these days major in the social sciences—after a Republican army general who served as secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration and made a controversial presentation to the United Nations about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. The cultural divide between the academy and the military, many liberals’ scorn for the GOP, and most professors’ hostility toward the Afghanistan and Iraq wars make the renaming all the more remarkable.
But the case for the Powell School was strong. First, it would have been politically obtuse for a college in Harlem that serves a largely minority and immigrant population to spurn a project inspired by such a distinguished African-American—a CCNY graduate, no less, who grew up in the South Bronx. Nearly every student we’ve spoken to was pleased with the decision to create the Powell School. To the extent that they know much about Colin Powell, they regard him as a striver who made it, and some see in him the kind of person they aspire to be—much as Powell sees his younger self in them, as he made clear in a moving address at the school’s inaugural ceremony.
Second, many scholarships are named for people whom the average university professor would positively despise. Consider the Rhodes Scholarships (named after arch-colonialist Cecil Rhodes); the Truman Scholarships (named after the president who used nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki); the Goldwater Scholarships (named after the senator who voted against the Civil Rights Act); and the grants, awards, and fellowships provided under the names of the “robber barons” Carnegie, Mellon, and Rockefeller. Across the country, moreover, bridges, monuments, buildings, and universities are named for leaders controversial in one way or another.
Third, the Powell School’s proponents raised money that would have gone elsewhere if CCNY hadn’t found a use for it (possibly to George Washington University, where Powell received an MBA). CCNY, perpetually short on funds, needed whatever help it could get. A political dogfight over the Powell School would have cost the college dearly.
Finally, there was the importance of intellectual diversity. As a black Republican and former soldier, Powell is an outsider at CCNY, where the political spectrum generally ranges from liberal to radical. Discussing Powell and his legacy will expose students to other perspectives and to the importance of open debate. The Powell School is the latest bit of good news for an institution that can always use more of it.