NEW YORK -- One American university has produced more CEOs than any other, and it is not headquartered in Cambridge, Mass. Among the graduates of this university are more Nobel laureates than of any other public institution of higher learning, including the one in Berkeley, Calif.
The City University of New York, a collection of 17 colleges scattered around the five boroughs of the nation's largest city, holds both distinctions, although -- as America's largest urban university -- it hardly resembles Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley or Yale.
At a time when affirmative-action policies are being rolled back in California and Texas, City University offers a breathtakingly different example: a school so devoted to the principles of affirmative action and open access that it would not exist without them.
For nearly 30 years, CUNY has operated under a policy of open admissions. Anyone with a diploma from a New York City high school -- no matter how poor the school, nor how poorly prepared the student -- is guaranteed admission. This fall, more than 200,000 degree-seeking students, plus 150,000 adult and continuing-education enrollees, have matriculated at CUNY, which includes seven two-year community colleges, nine four-year colleges and a technical school.
And just as CUNY depends on affirmative action, New York City depends on CUNY. About 60 percent of the Big Apple's public high school graduates attend a CUNY college at some point in their lives. Also, the majority of new teachers hired each year by the city's public schools are graduates of CUNY. A recent opinion poll found that 33 percent of adult New Yorkers said they or an immediate family member had graduated from a CUNY school.
"CUNY has always educated the sons and daughters of the inner city, the poor, the immigrant," says Gen. Colin L. Powell, a 1958 graduate of CUNY's flagship campus, City College. "Many students have the brainpower to attend Ivy League schools. What they lack are money and connections."
What they have are the ambition -- and fear -- of the truly desperate. Seventy percent of today's students are racial minorities, 62 percent are women, 43 percent are 25 or older, 29 percent support children and 60 percent work part or full time. In 1994, with New York City's population of new immigrants surging, CUNY officials projected that half the student body would be overseas-born by the year 2000. The university reached that landmark this fall, three years ahead of schedule.
"For many people, it's CUNY or nothing. The City University is the only gateway to the middle class for minorities and the poor in this city," says Dennis Walcott, president of the New York Urban League. "I don't think people around the country, or even in New York sometimes, appreciate its scope, size or importance."
CUNY's history dates to the 1847 founding of City College, which offered a free, first-class education to anyone who performed well in New York's high schools. Thousands of poor New Yorkers, many of them Jewish, eventually took advantage: Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, muckraker Upton Sinclair and Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine, are all graduates. City College (which in 1962 became the flagship of a new City University system formed by the merger of New York's municipal colleges) was known as "Harvard on the subway."
"Even this C-average student," writes Powell in his autobiography, "emerged from City College prepared to write, think and communicate effectively and equipped to compete against students from colleges that I could never have dreamed of attending."
But in the late 1960s, after a series of violent student protests over racial diversity, CUNY colleges dropped their admissions standards and declared open admissions. The resulting flood of students overran unprepared campuses; enrollments only subsided after 1976, when the New York City fiscal crisis forced CUNY to begin charging tuition, which is now $3,200 a year.
What has emerged in the 1990s is a school that produces both brilliant scientists and barely literate supermarket clerks. CUNY's science and graduate programs, filled by recent immigrants with strong academic backgrounds in their home countries, remain top-ranked. But nine out of 10 community college freshmen -- and about half of senior college freshmen -- require at least one remedial course.
All that remediation means that fewer than 8 percent of CUNY students complete college in four years, though administrators argue that given the student population, the nine-year graduation rate -- about 45 percent -- is a better measure.
"Remember, no other university tries to educate so many poorly prepared students," says Sandi Cooper, who is president of the Faculty Senate. "CUNY is like beauty: Whether it's good or not is in the eye of the beholder."