La Guardia Community College: A Case Study in Academic Audacity

Article excerpt

Urban studies empowers students and reinvigorates the curriculum at a college inspired by New York's feistiest mayor and America's boldest educational philosopher.

Community colleges are curious phenomena, simultaneously assailed and admired for their audacity in challenging the conventional college model. Praised for accessibility, flexibility, and versatility, they are assumed to lack academic integrity. Complex colleges that offer developmental, career, liberal, and continuing education, they are often dismissed as nothing more than academic supermarkets. Some scorn these uniquely American teaching institutions for the very democracy they represent, while others berate them for making "false promises" of social mobility. The fastest-growing sector of higher education, serving over half the nation's first-year students, community colleges still stand on the margins of academia.

Yet they are in the forefront of a remarkable metamorphosis that has occurred across higher education in the United States. This transformation began in the 1960s and has marked the most radical shift since the land-grant colleges were introduced in the 1860s. Indeed, the practices of community colleges, once considered unconventional, now permeate the entire academic structure as career-oriented curricula and work internships proliferate, as developmental education (often camouflaged) infuses liberal education, as controversies over nontraditional students rage, and as pressures to diversify pedagogy mount. At the same time, many faculty fear a loss of academic quality, the balkanization of the curriculum, and the trivialization of teaching. In our rush to educate so many students, have we sacrificed educating the whole student? Has the community college movement denigrated or democratized higher education in America?

By way of beginning to answer these questions, it might be useful to consider the history of one community college, whose evolution exemplifies the dilemmas of higher education in transition, but whose stubborn commitments offer possible strategies for resolving those dilemmas. Created in 1970, just as the City University of New York (CUNY) was implementing its controversial open-- admissions policy, LaGuardia Community College was in many ways a flower child-the product of a decade that challenged the establishment, including the status quo in higher education.

Maverick Institution

The youngest of CUNY's six community colleges, LaGuardia has grown from 500 students to 11,000 matriculants and 28,000 nonmatriculants who speak ninety-seven different languages. The college uses converted factory buildings situated in a transportation hub adjacent to the world's most multicultural neighborhoods. This reality-- based institution is particularly interesting, because it was founded in the image of two very different, but oddly complementary, idealists. The first was its namesake, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, the feisty little man who served as dynamic mayor and major booster of New York City from 1933 to 1945. Multiethnic, multilingual, nontraditional in appearance, style, and politics, LaGuardia provided inspiration for a community college that prided itself on being a maverick.

An ardent advocate of public education, LaGuardia built ninety-two schools, reduced average class size, and expanded educational services for the physically challenged. He understood that learning occurs beyond school doors and, besides reading to children over the radio, inaugurated free park concerts, brazenly conducting a few himself.

Throughout his life, LaGuardia championed the underprivileged and underrepresented. Clearly, the urban community college was a perfect place to honor LaGuardia's humble origins, pluralism, humanitarianism, faith in public education, and love of New York City.

The second source of inspiration for LaGuardia Community College was John Dewey, the renowned Columbia University philosopher and AAUP founder, who represented the other end of the academic hierarchy. …