Tuesday, July 05, 2016

July 5, 2016--Alison Bernstein

Alison Bernstein, my prodigious colleague and friend died last week. Below is a note I sent to her daughters--
Dear Emma & Julia
Here's a story about your mother from nearly 50 years ago.
It was 1969 or so and I was working at Staten Island Community College in the backwaters of higher education. The backwaters because in, traditional higher education terms, in status terms, it was doubly-challenged: it was a community college and located on very conservative Staten Island. In effect--nowhere and nothing special.
But, the president of SICC (SICK, students dubbed it), William Birenbaum, was an inspired and inspiring educator totally devoted to the purported mission of urban community colleges--for the disenfranchised to make access to a quality education welcoming and effective. 
On Staten Island, the local leadership saw the college as a version of a trade school where the male students should take business courses and the women study to be either nurses or secretaries--the college's two most popular programs.
Bill rounded up a crew of progressive educators to help him, as he put it, break some windows to enable new, more egalitarian ideas flourish. As you might imagine he was not a favorite of the Staten Island Italian Club who effectively ran the island. But Bill, if nothing else, was ambitious and persistent. So he hired "Flash" (a former dock worker and union organizer), a bunch of Vietnam veterans, one or two scholar-activists (Stanley Aronowitz and Colin Greer), diversity activists Joe Harris and Ernesto Loperena, me, and the very young Alison, a newly-minted Vassar graduate.
How did Bill find his unlikely way to Alison? How did she make her unlikely way to him and godforsaken Staten Island?
While at Vassar, Alison was involved in pressing the administration to place students on the board of trustees. She and her coconspirators wanted it to be 50-50, with 50 percent student members, but they settled for one seat, which Alsion of course occupied.
Alison being Alison, she immediately took the lead to establish a national organization for student trustees. In that era of social protest many colleges were adding students to their boards.
And with such an organization in place, again Alison being Alison, she organized a national conference of student trustees. To the second or third annual conference--during Alison's senior year--she invited Bill Birenbaum to be the keynote speaker.
He accepted in less than a heartbeat and showed up in Chicago, or wherever, roaring drunk. (We later learned we would find him in that condition by 4:30 every afternoon.)
Even when high, perhaps especially when inebriated, Bill was brilliant. In his speech, as he would put it, he did his thing. And after he was done--I wasn't there but heard he was at top of his game--he invited Alison and the rest of the organization's executive leadership to go out for drinks.
He carried on for hours over many glasses of Dewar's, his favorite. 
He was especially attracted to Alison (I feel certain in more ways than one.) Well past midnight, when all but Bill and Alison remained standing. Literally. To her he said something like the following--
"You say you want to participate in making a revolution. I respect that. In fact, I endorse it. But you can't do it at Vassar. That place is for rich kids. For the over-privileged, like you, who want to play at bringing about radical change. If you want to make a revolution in education there's no better place to do so than at two-year colleges. At mine. That's where the action in. So, if you're serious, it's time for you to shit or get off the pot."
"I want to, I want to," Alison said with her heart pounding in her chest.
"In that case, with you graduating soon, if you really are serious, which I doubt, I will hire you to be a secial presidential assistant and from that position you will be able to find things to do to help bring about social change."
"I'll be there," Alison said.
Bill said, "I will hold an office for you only until July 1st."
And the rest is history.
Not mentioned thus far in any of the many notes and testimonies or the president of the Ford Foundation's otherwise fine tribute, is Alsion's work with community colleges. 
After her time at SICC, when at the Fund For the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (also insufficiently mentioned), Alison began a nearly 30-year deep involvement with community colleges. First from her position at FIPSE in the Department of Education and later during her two assignments at the Ford Foundation. 
With the support and encouragement of Susan Berresford, The Urban Community College Transfer Opportunity Program, which Alison conceptualized and ran, was mold breaking. Thousands of students who didn't have a friend in philanthropy, benefitted mightily by the work that Alison pioneered, advocated, and protected. It wasn't sexy like a lot of other philanthropic work, but it made a measurable difference in the lives of many.
Back in 1969, she showed up at SICC before July 1st and got off that metaphorical pot. From then on, for decades she lived and thrived and inspired.
That was a magical time of great accomplishment.
I loved her very much.
In more ways than one.

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