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Report from the Niagara Frontier

In September, 1969, President Martin L. Meyerson of the State University of New York at Buffalo announced that he was taking a two-thirds leave from the university for the forthcoming academic year, in order to become director of the American Assembly on Goals and Governance of the University—a new task force that had just been established by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. At the end of the year, Meyerson would resume his full responsibility as president of the university; while during it he would continue to assume responsibility for long-range planning of the university’s development and to reside—as in fact he has done—in Buffalo. Daily operations would, however, be directed by the then Executive Vice President Peter F. Regan, a psychiatrist and former dean of the School of Medicine, who would serve as acting president and locum tenens for the academic year 1969-1970.

The announcement of this decision—deferred as it had been till the very beginning of the academic year—gave rise to extensive rumors that President Meyerson was planning to leave permanently. These rumors were promptly and repeatedly denied as they recurred throughout the fall semester. The university community had, in any case, grown accustomed to them, since Mr. Meyerson was reported to be under serious consideration for every major university presidency that had become available, beginning with Columbia. If so, he had accepted none of them; and there were good reasons for thinking—apart from his own statements—that his commitment to SUNY at Buffalo might be deep.

As president, his job was difficult. During his first year at Buffalo—the academic year 1966-67—he had been viciously harassed. The Buffalo populace and press had reviled him as a leftist refugee from Berkeley and, after Leslie Fiedler’s celebrated pot-bust in April, 1967, a condoner of immorality and of the corruption of youth. An organization with the inimitable title of MAM, or Mothers Against Meyerson, was formed to campaign for his removal; while the more conservative members of the Buffalo Common Council—the municipal governing board—attacked Meyerson and the university at meeting after meeting of the Council, urging legislative investigation of the university. The strain and hazards of President Meyerson’s position were clearly so great that even the climatic and cultural advantages of life in the Queen City—as Buffalo is called, with no implication of gaiety—could scarcely be expected to compensate.

Nevertheless, he had not only remained but was succeeding in making the university an interesting and promising school, with a national reputation for high academic quality and intellectual excitement. The University of Buffalo, during its 120 years as a private institution, had few claims to eminence. It is true that it shares with Princeton and Columbia Universities the otherwise unique distinction of having had as its president a man who also became President of the United States—indeed, at one time the Buffalo president held both offices simultaneously—but Millard Fillmore was hardly comparable to Woodrow Wilson. Vice President Fillmore became President when Zachary Taylor died in 1850, and was not renominated in 1852. He was nominated by the American (Know-Nothing) Party in 1856, partly on the strength of his sponsorship of such legislation as the Fugitive Slave Law, and was then defeated; but he would probably carry Buffalo if he were running today, and would certainly make a popular president of the university.

In a social climate in which “know-nothing” strains have continuously run high, it is astonishing that the University of Buffalo—or UB, as it is still called—should have become as good as it did. Over the years it developed a first-rate law school and considerable strength in the sciences and, later, in English and philosophy, by conventional academic standards. Its clientele were primarily middle-class local youth; its pretentions more genteel than intellectual. When it became a part of the state system—and the largest unit of that system—in 1962, heavy changes occurred.

The financial position of UB, which had been driven into the state system by the threat of destitution, of course improved. Tuition charges were greatly reduced; enrollments climbed rapidly; new staff soon vastly outnumbered their seniors. The anticipated resentments and power struggles ensued; but the most important consequences were really demographic, largely unanticipated, and crucial to the current catastrophic state of the university.

Those who had objected to “UB going state” had envisioned that it would become less parochial, more bureaucratic and crowded, and not as nice generally; the prospect displeased many of Buffalo’s gentry. But working-class Buffalonians were ambivalent in their response. They certainly didn’t want a large, cosmopolitan university in their community; but they did want what they regarded as greater educational opportunity for their own children. And “going state” meant that the place would be cheaper and, as a kind of public school, probably easier to get into and with connections to a wider prospective range of economic opportunity. They might even get some return in the form of higher education for their taxes.

From the viewpoint of working-class interests, none of this has worked out. The mean income of UB students’ families has risen, not fallen; the university is harder for working-class youth to get into, not easier, even though it would now be a little cheaper, except for inflation, to attend. The reason, of course, is the social-class bias built into the normal measures of academic achievement in America, which Americans stubbornly refuse to recognize, thereby preserving their egalitarianism and their bias, too. Admission to the SUNY system is now almost wholly meritocratic, on the basis of grades and test scores, and these are very highly correlated to family income. It is far easier for a hard-working blue-collar youth of moderate intelligence to get a few thousand dollars together than it is for him to reach college with the kind of grades needed to compete in the state system.

And demographically, UB has gone state, if not with a vengeance, at least in a manner to arouse vengeance in the rejected. A very large proportion of its formerly almost entirely local student body would now come from New York and “out on the island”; probably a majority, if there were not an admissions policy limiting downstate enrollment. Under the Meyerson administration, too, there has been a steady drive to expand services to parts of the Buffalo community with which the university has had little previous relationship, and to open enrollment to those of its members who had previously been almost completely excluded. A rather promising pilot program under which 100 poor youths from the inner city were admitted provisionally in 1968 under a waiver of normal requirements has been expanded to about 400. Most of the people affected by these programs are, of course, black.

By going state, UB has thus, under an ideology of expanded educational opportunity, reduced its availability to white “middle Buffalonians” as it developed a social climate they feel to be profoundly obnoxious. And there has been another power shift, this one formal, structural, and presumably totally predictable in its effects and accepted by all parties concerned. When UB went state, nearly all the powers of the former local governing board—the University Council, composed largely of Buffalo financiers and industrialists—were transferred to the trustees of the total state system meeting in Albany. The local council relinquished authority over fiscal and personnel matters, retaining only two basic functions which it has not often been called upon to exercise. One of these is to set standards of conduct and to appoint investigating tribunals to bring charges against any miscreant before the statewide administrative body in Albany that has the power to discipline or dismiss.

The other residual function is that of nominating the president of SUNY Buffalo, as the Council did Martin L. Meyerson, when that office shall become vacant.

In January, 1970, it did become vacant. During the fall semester, President Meyerson was reputed to have incurred the enmity of Governor Rockefeller by supporting a demand made by the faculty senate of SUNY Buffalo and the corresponding student organizations that construction on the proposed new campus of the university, to be located in whitely suburban Amherst and to cost upwards of $600 million, be deferred until effective means of including black workers in the construction crews for the campus could be put into practice.

The proposed new campus, which has been funded in the state’s longrange budgetary plans, has been a major factor in President Meyerson’s own plans for the development of the university and a major inducement used in recruiting new faculty over the past three years. It is also by far the largest project for which definite commitments had been made and to which Buffalo’s sagging heavy-industrial economy could look for support. The prospect of building the new campus, and perhaps getting a job there—for UB, as projected, would have become Buffalo’s largest industry—had come to constitute virtually the sole utility of the institution to the white working class, which otherwise hated it. The “moratorium on construction” lasted about a year, during which construction unions refused most of the plans that had been presented by the university and community groups; while moderate black community leaders denounced the concessions the unions were prepared to make as tokenism.

Finally, Governor Rockefeller flew to Buffalo and, at a meeting at an airport motel, announced that construction would begin this spring on terms acceptable to the unions. The university administration had not been consulted at all. President Meyerson, who was present at the meeting, used this fact as a basis for urging on the black leaders the same spirit of modest acquiescence which he himself had adopted on behalf of the university. He agreed with the governor that, after all, the policies adopted, which provided for the inclusion of some blacks and gradual training and admission of more into the unions, though unilaterally imposed, were progressive in that they went further than any other state had gone to commit itself to improvement of opportunities for blacks in the construction industry. The blacks present, however, bitterly denounced the action of the governor, and spokesmen for the more radical students announced that they would attempt to block construction should it be begun under these conditions.

A few days later, President Myerson announced that he had accepted appointment to the presidency of the University of Pennsylvania, effective in the fall of 1970, instead of returning to his post. Meanwhile, he would continue on leave as he had been doing throughout the academic year thus far, devoting two-thirds of his time to the American Assembly on Goals and Governance of the University, and one-third to planning SUNY Buffalo’s longrange prospects, which were certainly becoming much clearer. The Buffalo Evening News, the calmer and more responsible of the two city dailies, reported Meyerson’s announcement with mingled regret and lavish praise for his service in building UB up as an institution of national stature and recruiting a distinguished faculty. Buffalo Common Councilman Raymond Lewandowski, a frequent and bitter critic of the “new UB,” among others, disagreed:

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