Classier Colleges

May 18, 2014

College graduations are in full bloom this week. Several recent issues of the New York Times have featured articles on higher education, and the news is hardly reassuring for parents who will be sending their precious offspring to a university in the near future. The crisis that those of us who teach at public universities knew to be real has now attracted media attention. In fact, there seem to be several issues driving a debate on how to keep education affordable and useful.

High tuition, cutthroat competition for places at top-flight colleges, pressure to score higher on standardized tests, and various other challenges now confront America’s brightest high school students as they consider their options for a college degree. My generation, the Baby Boomers, faced similar challenges 40 years ago. What we did not face was a class-based hierarchy of universities that excluded worthy candidates based solely upon their family’s income.

While most elite universities continue to boast of their inclusiveness and diversity, statistics are now proving that college education is rapidly becoming a privilege that only the wealthiest students can depend upon as a ticket to success. Upward mobility in America is now largely a myth because the bottom two thirds of our population are being denied a chance at a four-year college degree. It turns out that 40% of minority students who choose to attend college either cannot graduate in less than 6 years (with enormous debt on their young shoulders), or must settle for a two year associate degree at a low tier school.

Frank Bruni, reviewing a new feature film called “Ivory Tower” in the Sunday Review Section, likened education at an elite university like Harvard or Columbia to driving a Porsche sports car. In this film, soon to be released, viewers will be looking through the showroom windows at a luxury car dealership, dreaming of driving a sleek, beautiful automobile on a country road in May. 98% of them won’t be classy enough to own such a car, and their children won’t be classy enough to put on a cap and gown at Princeton either. So much for that part of the American Dream. What’s next?

The CLP Is Dead!

May 7, 2014

Today’s New York Times reported what many of us thought would never happen–Tony Marx and the NYPL have abandoned their preposterous Central Library Plan. Let no one doubt that several years of hard work by many individuals, most importantly Charles Warren and the Committee To Save the NYPL, caused the library to retreat and finally capitulate on this very public scam.

Go With The Schwartz

May 4, 2014

Frederic Schwartz, who died last week at age 63, was one of the funniest architects I have ever known. His humor was very like that of another irreverent Jew, Mel Brooks, who parodied every pop culture icon in America. Fred was quick to crack jokes about anything he saw as bogus or phoney. However, he was dead serious about architecture, civic amenities, and urbanism.

His light-hearted approach to life was probably a key to his success at convincing public agencies to do the right thing when it counted–with the Whitehall Ferry Terminal, the Liberty State Park Memorial, etc. When we worked together for a couple of years at Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown in Philadelphia, he poked fun at my Yale education (he went to Harvard), my neurotic perfectionism, and my reluctance to “loosen up” when there was fun to be had. He was always the first to lead a trip to the bar or deli, and delighted in pranks during charettes. He loved to strip down to his skivvies while drafting late at night, insisting that he could work faster without the extra weight.

Fred had talent to burn in all the relevant categories. He was charming, bright, well-read, and a joy to be around. He was a loyal friend and colleague. He had taste–writing for the MOMA Bauhaus exhibition catalog was a natural extension of his passion for great design of all kinds. Most importantly, he knew how to read the city, particularly New York City, and could find the right solution to almost any urban problem instinctively. When he organized Team Think to respond to the World Trade Center tragedy, he used all his talents to produce a brilliant solution to a complex program. Politics robbed him of a triumph that would have put him in the front rank of the profession.

I’m pretty sure that Fred understood the ironies that followed him throughout his career, and would have found humor in many of them. It gives me some comfort, but not a lot, that he knew before his death that he wouldn’t be able to build all the masterpieces floating around in his brain. Humor allowed Jews to cope with tragedy for thousands of years, and Fred epitomized the spirit of survival that sustained his people. I’m still very sad that he isn’t here to help us with the challenges ahead. The Empire of Wealth is strong. We really could use the Schwartz.