“WHAT PEOPLE BELIEVE ABOUT AN INSTITUTION BECOMES THEIR REALITY UNLESS THAT IS TURNED ON ITS HEAD.”
When Dr. Yolanda T. Moses assumed the helm of the City University
of New York’s City College of New York (CCNY) in 1993 she set about the
task of making the Harlem campus one of the premiere urban public
institutions in the nation. To accomplish that, she has instituted
ongoing program reviews of all academic departments by outside experts,
introduced a collegewide planning process to chart the institution’s
future, developed a much-needed fundraising campaign, and raised
Before going to CCNY, the nationally recognized cultural
anthropologist was vice president for academic affairs at California
State University-Dominguez Hills. She also was dean of the College of
Fine Arts at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona. She has
taught, and continues to teach, anthropology in addition to whatever
other duties she has had.
In 1995, Dr. Moses became the first African American president of
the American Anthropological Association. She chairs the American
Council on Education’s Commission on the Status of Women and The
College Fund/UNCF’s National Advisory Board for Service Learning, and
serves on the executive board of the Association of American Colleges
and Universities. She is a member of the National Science Foundation’s
Advisory Committee for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, and
has been elected to the board of trustees of the Ford Foundation.
Her writings have appeared in several educational journals, and she
was instrumental in producing the text, Black Women in Academe.
Dr. Moses received an associate’s degree from San Bernardino Valley
College, a bachelor’s degree in sociology from California State
College-San Bernardino, and a master’s degree and doctorate in
anthropology from the University of California-Riverside.
Last month, Black Issues had the opportunity to discuss educational
issues with Dr. Moses on the CCNY campus. The following is excerpted
from that discussion.
Dr. Moses, what is the greatest challenge facing you today?
I think the greatest challenge facing the City University is coming
to grips with whether or not the board of trustees is willing to
reaffirm the legacy of open admissions, access, and excellence for the
City University of New York. The City University of New York is a
beacon in the public higher education arena in this country for access
and excellence, particularly for underrepresented minorities, for
immigrants, for people who have not had the opportunity. It is the
university of second chance in this nation, and my concern is that
mission may be in danger.
There is a perception out there that what was once a great old city
university is now a very mediocre city university. How do you overcome
That’s been one of the major challenges during the almost five years
that I’ve been here. What is amazing is the discrepancy between the
perception on the one hand and the reality on the other.
For such a long time, City College was the only public institution
in the city and it afforded a lot of hope. It made [a quality college
education a possibility for] a lot of people who wouldn’t ordinarily
have gotten one. And it was free. By and large, the people who came
through in the late half of the nineteenth century and the first half
of the twentieth century were White ethnic immigrants from western
Europe. The later ethnic groups that have come into the city have been,
primarily, people of color. So we have the clash of the two kinds of
At the time the White ethnic students went to the City College,
there were so-called “standards of entry.” You had to pass a test. You
had to show that you were capable of being in the institution. With the
coming of open admissions — which meant open admissions to the
community colleges, not to the senior colleges — the perception was
that you could just walk out of any high school into any senior college
and you could get a seat, which has never been the case. But the
perception is still that.
There are two things wrong about both perceptions. First of all,
prior to open admissions, the entrance requirements for City College
were not as strict as many believe. They fluctuated based on how many
students the college needed. So test scores fluctuated anywhere from 65
percent up to 90 percent in any given year.
Also, from 1916 until open admissions, there was always an evening
division which anybody could go to regardless of whether or not they
had passed the test to get into the day program. Today, the
requirements to get into the senior colleges are more rigorous than
some of the state universities where you have to have a B average, many
units of college prep courses, and 1070 on your SATs to get in. That’s
the reality, but the perception is that you just sort of walk into City
College off the street.
Is that reflective of a racial bias that is inherent in our society?
I think some of it is, and many of my alumni have said to me that it
really isn’t about race as much as it is, for them, about meeting
certain standards. They understand that the public schools today are
not what the public schools were twenty or thirty years ago. So what
you get is a student coming out of the public schools who is capable of
coming into the institution, who [has] a B average, but who may or may
not be able to do college work.
Our role is to take those students as they are, develop that talent
that we know is there, and then produce some of the most outstanding
young people in this country — which is our goal.
Are there lessons from some of the highly successful Black colleges that you can use to achieve this goal?
It’s funny that you should ask. I chaired a national advisory
committee for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) on
community service learning. It gave me a view into the HBCUs that I
hadn’t had before.
We have been forced into thinking about reinventing ourselves.
We’re having to articulate in ways we haven’t historically — through
public relations, recruitment, and community outreach — as to why
people should come here.
But you’re also raising standards, raising the bar to get in.
We have open admissions at the community college, but we have never
had open admissions at the senior college. So we’re not raising the bar
as much as we are tweaking the requirements that we already have in
How do you strike a balance between rigorous admissions standards, access, and equity?
It’s tricky, because on the one hand, as a public institution we are accountable to the people who pay our taxes.
We know that students perform a variety of excellence measures. We
cannot get caught educationally in only being held accountable for one
set of educational standards. The public understands linear, single,
quantifiable test results as “the” measure. It’s our job to educate
them that this is only one measure. There are other measures as well.
But to the extent that we need to be accountable, we will be
The bilingual issue at Hostos Community College has gotten a lot of
notoriety. Do you think all of the questions and the criticism that
were raised were legitimate, or was this again a miscommunication about
how you assess students and whether they should be assessed In their
I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of Hostos because I really
don’t know. A lot of that is confidential information. But what I do
know is that the City University has a policy of testing students as
they come into the institution as to what their level of language
proficiency is, and then giving them the courses that they need to move
on to the next level.
In theory, people are supposed to be tested before moving on to the
next level. I think what is happening right now with the new regime of
trustees is that they’re rethinking the whole issue of testing, of what
it is that they really want to be the outcomes.
I think that what you’ll see ultimately coating out of this
situation is a better articulation for the entire system of what is
expected for all students — whether they go to a monolingual
institution or a bilingual institution, which Hostos is.
How do you reconcile your stellar list of wealthy alumni with the financial struggle that you have undergone?
We are working on it at several different levels. Money of the City
College has not been spent on alumni relations or developing a
development office until very recently. Our publicity and our outreach
has been by word of mouth. We have an alumni association that is
separately incorporated and sort of operates on its own, and we have a
City College fund that was started in 1947 to raise funds on behalf of
the college. But we have never been expected to generate from the
alumni large amounts of money the way that I’m going to have to do. So
we’ve really just developed what you could call a bona fide development
The 150th anniversary celebration was a way to reaffirm the
presence of this college and what it has meant to the city and to the
nation. What we’re doing now is going to be important for the future
well-being of the city and the nation — and that’s where my outreach
The American Council on Education Is having its swung to San
Francisco in February. Should the council put its money where its mouth
has been and openly endorse Dr. Ronald Takaki’s proposition to use
affirmative action in college admissions and public contracting?
Yes, I think they should — if they have an articulated strategy for
working with constituents outside of higher education to make this
work. I don’t think that just endorsing it is going to make it work. I
think that they can bring their resources to bear in terms of their
data, in terms of what they know, in terms of their research on the
importance of taking race, class, and gender into consideration in
terms of admissions. I think they could be a major player, and this is
the role that I think higher education can play.
Between sexism and racism, which has been the larger obstacle for you?
I’d say both, depending on the situation. I don’t bifurcate myself
that way. I’m sort of a package and both things [are present] at the
same time. I think that the fact that there are only, out of 4,000
college and university presidents, approximately 437 women and only 37
or 38 Black women shows you how small that number is. When we took at
Black presidents, the numbers are a little larger than that. So I would
say that gender has been in some ways a plus and in some ways a minus,
depending on the situation.
In what kind of situations was It a plus?
As a faculty member in a classroom, as a department chair, as a
dean, as a vice president. Up to the dean level, I found that it was a
very interesting kind of experience for me because I felt that I was a
role model for people — both for my ethnicity and for my gender. When
I got to the vice presidency and the presidency, it seems that the
gender issue is one that kind of raises its head in some very
As you go up the pyramid, in terms of higher education, and as you
get closer and closer to the top, I think what you find is that there
are fewer and fewer women. There may be fewer men of color as well, but
there’s an interesting kind of gender dynamic that takes place. As an
anthropologist, I’m still trying to study that. It’s a different kind
of invisibility that you experience.
What I find, as a Black woman, is that at every career level you
reach, you have to educate people about what it means to be a diverse
group, to be inclusive, to represent all people. Even if you don’t
represent them at the table, you have to represent their ideas. And
that is something that doesn’t automatically happen at each level.
Have, you found that your Black faculty have unrealistic expectations of you?
I certainly found that to be true in California. It had to do with a
sense of entitlement that a lot of people felt — that we were brothers
and sisters regardless of what the channels of communication and what
the differences were, that we had a lot of things in common.
A lot of faculty and staff don’t understand that a lot of people in
positions of leadership don’t have a lot of power — that they have a
lot of influence, but not necessarily a lot of power. So I disappointed
them in that I couldn’t “deliver” things to them. But the expectation
was there that somehow my presence was going to make their lives better.
Where I was able to be helpful was in my role as dean and as vice
president. As issues came across my desk, I was able to look at the
discrepancy between how you deal with this person and how you deal with
that person. Then I could say, “Why is this happening with this person,
and not with this person?” So, in that way I think that my presence
made a difference.
I think the other way my presence has made a difference is that it
has given people the opportunity to come forward and to speak, to tell
me things that they wouldn’t tell anybody else, to provide me the
opportunity to become a mentor and a role model for people who
ordinarily would not have come forward. So I felt that my presence
played a role, but maybe not the one that people wanted me to play.
Has City College gotten over the Leonard Jeffries episode, or is that still haunting this Institution?
When I came, there was a lot of controversy externally about the
influence that Professor Jeffries had on the campus, and again, as I
said before, my job was to lessen the gap between the discrepancy and
This [is] a campus where all the kids, for the most part … are
going about their business taking their classes. You have a professor
who professes his beliefs and there were some people who took his
classes and a few people who followed him. But for the most part, the
campus was not really involved. But the perception, externally, is that
City College had become a bastion of hate, that students were pitted
against each other, and that there were clashes among different ethnic
groups. That was not the case at all.
I was able to dispel that through discussions and by bringing
people to the campus so that they could see themselves. Right now, we
have four ethnic studies programs. Professor Jeffries is on campus, and
he’s doing his teaching and his work and his writing the way he did.
And as a matter of fact, he has a very low profile right now on campus.
What’s the lesson that comes out of that whole episode?
The lesson for me, as a college president, is that perception is
everything. What people believe about an institution becomes their
reality unless that is turned on its head. [The Jeffries incident] had
the very real impact, that belief, of driving away some of our donors.
These are people who understood freedom of speech, for the most
part, and who understood that one person’s voice does not represent the
entire institution. These are people that believed that their
institution had been taken over by anti-Semitic elements — and for
many of our alums who are Jewish, this was just anathema. When they
found out that wasn’t the case on campus, they were so happy that they
wanted an excuse to come back and be a part of the institution.
What’s next for you?
Well, I still have a lot of work to do here. As I said, reinventing
City College, and reaffirming the good stuff, and looking toward the
twenty-first century are going to take me a little while to do —
especially with the fundraising and bringing our alumni back.
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