Education for All: A Tribute to Julius Edelstein

Sarah Ritchie Celebrations, Milestones Leave a Comment

Perhaps because I have been close to librarians and archivists over the years, I’ve cultivated the habit of holding on to meaningful correspondence.  In the days of emails and text messages, hand-written notes are even more precious.  As I prepare for an upcoming move to a new apartment, I’ve recently found myself revisiting cards and letters and photographs that have followed me in my moves across a half dozen states, over more years than I care to admit.  A couple of nights ago, I came across correspondence I’d shared with the late Julius Edelstein, the Emeritus Senior Vice-Chancellor of CUNY. 

Julius has been gone for almost a decade.  I came know him when I worked at The Century Foundation, the progressive public policy think tank that stood in a fine old townhouse on 70th between Park and Madison.  Julius had an office (a very messy office) at Hunter College on Lexington and 68th.  I can’t even recall how I came to know Julius—we shared common friends and similar liberal political sensibilities—but I liked him right off the bat.  He was an exemplary person in so many ways.  We would regularly lunch at Sel et Poivre, a bistro on the upper east side.  I would draw inspiration from his kindness, decency, and commitment to helping people through broad access to higher education. 

The son of Russian immigrants, Julius was raised in Wisconsin. I’ve learned that his father was general secretary of the Social Revolutionary Party in Czarist Russia, so it was natural that Julius would adopt liberal stances on social policies.  While he attended the great University of Wisconsin to study medicine, he was never able to complete his own degree due to health reasons.    He spent many years in important policy positions, and eventually he became part of the CUNY system, where he supported the innovative idea of open enrollment for all students.  CUNY is the nation’s largest urban university system, with flagship colleges, a vast Graduate Center, and smaller schools dotting the five boroughs.  CUNY truly exemplifies the American ideal of education as a stepping stone to a better life.  And while the political winds had shifted in Julius’s later years, he never gave up on the idea that everyone deserved the best education possible.  In all, Julius spent four decades advocating for college education for disadvantaged people.  Even in “retirement” he never gave up the good fight. 

Time has passed, of course.  Julius died in 1995.  The Century Foundation sold the property on the Upper East Side and moved to the southern tip of Manhattan.  And, I now work with another organization (still focusing on students, though) in a glitzy building at 49th and 6th Avenue. 

As I left my office last week, I came upon the concluding festivities of the Hunter College Commencement Ceremonies held at Radio City Music Hall.  The graduates strolled up and down the Avenue in their brilliant royal purple gowns—the scene literally took my breath away.  The graduates were distinctive in a number of important ways—women were impressively represented among those I saw.  Their ethnic diversity could scarcely have been greater.  They came in Muslim head covers and stoles of Kente cloth.  The proud graduates pushed baby buggies and a few arrived in wheel chairs.  The graduates were accompanied by parents, friends, children, and romantic loves.  Some were in their early 20’s, but many were not.  (I understand that the oldest member of the 2014 Hunter College graduating class was 74 years young.)

In a time of increasing gaps between the have’s and have-nots and the incendiary debates that surround issues of immigration and affirmative action, I was buoyed by witnessing Julius’s vision fulfilled—a fine academic institution serving our great diverse city, its young people, their families, and ultimately America.  I hope Julius was smiling from above.     Take a look at a few images from their day!

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