Reported by JUAN ESPINAL
Special Correspondent to the AmNews
and CYRIL JOSH BARKER Amsterdam News Staff
Reported and written by CURTIS SIMMONS
For many months, Medgar Evers College has been at the center of controversy as administrators and faculty members have fought for the soul of the college.
The college administration, led by Dr. William L. Pollard and Provost Howard C. Johnson, has been accused of closing centers, attacking professors and leading the college away from its core mission of social justice and community uplift, a rich heritage that goes back to its founding more than 40 years ago.
As the controversy has grown, elected officials and CUNY’s central administration have been drawn into the fray as both sides seek to gain the upper hand.
But for many Brooklyn residents who are either too young or have forgotten what Medgar Evers College is supposed to be about, a look back at the man and the college’s mission might be helpful.
Medgar Evers College is the youngest of the four-year CUNY schools, established in 1969. It gets its name from Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Wiley Evers, who served as the field secretary for the NAACP. Evers was a revolutionary man and civil rights hero, part of the triumphant rank of civil rights leaders assassinated in the 1960s that also includes Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Evers was the first to go, shot by Southern racists in his home state of Mississippi in 1963. He was 37.
Evers tried to bring attention to and correct unjust practices, especially in higher education. In 1962, he helped the first Black student attend the all-white University of Mississippi–he was assassinated four months later.
As Evers was championing higher education for Blacks in the South, Central Brooklyn residents began pushing for a CUNY college in their neighborhood. The 1960s were an important time for CUNY, as New York City residents of color pushed for a greater minority presence throughout the system. For decades, Black and Brown students were underrepresented in the system and opportunities for students of color were limited.
With the help of local elected officials and community organizations, including the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the Central Brooklyn Coordinating Council and the NAACP, Brooklyn residents approached the Board of Higher Education of the City of New York, the precursor to the CUNY board of trustees, and, after several rounds of discussion and lobbying, sponsorship for the college was approved.
As the college was born and the CUNY system was changing, a group of young educators came into the system with new ideas and a different approach to education. Luby Mays was one of those educators. She joined the Medgar faculty in 1974, only five years after the college was founded. At that time she was a newly minted Ph.D. from Columbia University, and she joined the college as an education professor. “It was such an exuberant place to be,” she said in a recent interview. “People in the community were delighted to have a four year college in the community they felt a tremendous sense of ownership of the school.”
Mays spent more than 20 years at the college, which she still refers to as her “beloved Medgar.” While at the school she served as head of the education department and provost, the chief education administrator for the college. During her time there many centers were founded, including the Caribbean Center, which is still in existence. “We felt as though we were making a mark on the educational system for all of New York City,” she said.
Since it opened its doors, Medgar has graduated over 12,000 alumni. Today, many of its students attend the school only on interim basis before transferring to another school–only 53 percent of students return for their sophomore year. The school, which accepts all applicants, gives students a guaranteed opportunity to get started on their education.
Medgar began as a two-year school and is unique among CUNY schools for offering its students the opportunity to obtain either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Since the college’s establishment it has only had four presidents. The school currently offers over 20 degree programs at the baccalaureate and associates level. Located at the intersection of Crown Street and Bedford Avenue, the college has three buildings, including the most recently built “S” building and the new Academic Building.
For many students, the passion and the original mission of Medgar Evers College remain alive and well. “They want to bring out revolutionaries,” declared Alex Caesar, a freshman from East Flatbush, “Not just make a name for themselves.” Caesar described the classrooms as possessing a “feeling” that was unlike anywhere else he had been.
Caesar is one of the over 7,100 students currently attending Medgar Evers College who lives under the motto “We create success one student at a time.” The college is credited for giving opportunity to people looking to advance not only their careers but their lives.
The school attracts a local population, with 99 percent of its student base coming from in state. This allows students to receive state and federal funding, reducing the financial burden of getting an education. Most community members in a recent interview said that the college’s presence has been a positive influence on the community. “It lives up to its namesake,” asserted Rose, a resident of the neighborhood for the last 54 years. “It brings a sense of education to all.”
But a large number of students don’t particularly have the school spirit and sense of purpose that was so evident when the school started. Some described the school as being “okay,” and the atmosphere as “immature at times.” And as is the case for a lot of commuter schools, many students admitted that they were attending the college because of its vicinity to their homes or jobs, and the affordable price compared to private universities.
But Mays, who has remained in touch with folks from the college over the years, sees a greater problem.
She sees the difference now from her days at the college as a feeling by the community that they have been abandoned. “The original mission was to serve the underserved educationally,” Mays said. “Their concerns were connected to the college. The new president doesn’t seem to care about those initiatives to help those young people. He seems to want to move the college into the mainstream of CUNY.”
Mays and many others see CUNY as still looking to primarily serve the educational needs of a white population, not necessarily Blacks and Latinos. “Our mission was to serve students who could not be served by Brooklyn or Queens City College. We incorporated their ideas and sensitivities. We knew our population had more academic and socioeconomic needs, and it was not their fault,” said Mays. “And sometimes…because they lived in a certain place or went to a certain high school they didn’t get the same quality education as others who went to other city schools. At Medgar we knew you could embrace youngsters with challenges and could help them.”