(The following is an edited version of farewell remarks delivered last month by Professor Ron Rubin to his 75 colleagues in the Department of Social Science, Human Services, and Criminal Justice of Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York.
The occasion marked his completion of fifty years on the faculty, a record of service not exceeded in the college’s history.)
Having taught some 15,000 students in the fifty years I have been here, I must be equipped with strong survival skills.
My first awareness of BMCC was an article that my mother showed me in mid-1965 about a new college being started in Manhattan.
Since I am the only member of this department who taught at the college’s original location, allow me to share memories of the early years.
The original “campus” consisted of two floors rented from the American Management Association building next door to the Time Life building, across the street from Radio City Music Hall.
Enrollment stood at a few hundred students. The college was originally conceived as a business career, work-study type institution wherein students took courses in the early part of the day and would find part-time employment in the midtown area.
In order that BMCC students would look respectable in Manhattan’s business climate, there were classroom dress requirements the first few years.
As a political scientist, I was part of an eight-member department that taught the introductory social sciences. Some colleagues would be responsible for two disciplines, such as psychology and sociology.
Since our two-floor college housed neither a lounge nor a cafeteria, the college family patronized local food shops such as Tad’s Steak House, where a dinner cost ninety-nine cents. Sometimes I ate at a pioneering, long-gone kosher dairy restaurant, Farmfood, where a multi-course lunch cost less than three dollars.
The mid-1970s was a troubled time for the college as New York City, teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, implemented campus closures in the CUNY system. Everyone not holding tenure at the college was laid off – twenty-five percent of our department.
In the mid-1980s, BMCC moved to its present location on West Street, facing the Hudson River. One memory that I associate with this location was watching, from my river-view classroom, barges being loaded with the ashes of 9/11.
In my teaching of American Government, my course was very pro-American. My respect for this country’s freedom, equality, opportunity, and diversity was very clear. I tried to impart to students the value of citizenship participation, hard work, and community responsibility. Going through the biographies of recent presidents, I sought to show the possibilities of growth in our open society.
In terms of my research, I capitalized on the college’s New York City location. I wrote scholarly articles on the role of newspaper correspondents at the United Nations. As the biographer of Fred Lebow, the founder of the New York City Marathon, I interviewed some 100 figures, mostly based here, who in various ways crossed the race director’s life.
There is a powerful comparison between Lebow’s populist theme of marathoning and the mission of BMCC. Lebow emphasized that not only exemplary runners but schleppers and plodders of all types (such as myself) could train themselves to go the 26.2-mile distance.
BMCC’s hopeful theme, “Start here, go anywhere,” mirrors Lebow’s belief in striving and potential. BMCC is a microcosm of American democracy. What other country spends such large sums to open doors and give opportunity? Education at least assures a place at the starting line. Reaching the finish is mainly up to the competitor.
My farewell, dear colleagues, takes place during Chanukah, the holiday of lights. In the Jewish tradition, the Torah is synonymous with light, and light is a metaphor for knowledge.
This nation’s founding fathers, in the belief they were starting a New Zion on these shores, also adopted the analogy between light and learning. Thus, Yale University took the words urim ve’tumim, light and perfection, associated with the breastplate of the high priest in the Jerusalem Temple– as an embodiment of its mission.
Teaching and healing, I believe, are the two noblest professions. May you be blessed to bring knowledge and light into the classroom, realizing that the message of light you bring shines in the most unforeseen moments.
For those of you who have the strength and devotion, may you join me in a similar fifty-year campus run.