CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College, located four blocks
from ground zero, has the dubious distinction of being the only school to lose a building from the attack on the World Trade Center.
And yet, while this community college—whose student body is largely low-income people of color—has been reeling over the loss of 40 classrooms from crushed Fiterman Hall, as well as the deaths of eight school members, a potential health crisis, and a fiscal emergency, it is elite Stuyvesant High School, just across the street, that has received most of the attention from city officials and the media.
When, for example, a vocal group of parents at Stuyvesant voiced concerns about air quality at the school, the city responded with a $1 million environmental cleanup. In addition, the Department of Health stationed a doctor and nurse on the high school campus, and just to prove that classrooms were safe for 3000 of the city’s brightest kids, Chancellor Levy moved his office there for four days. Levy’s gesture prompted nationwide press coverage and the media continues to report on the school’s well-being. The New York Times even distributed an edition of Stuyvesant’s student paper inside its November 20 issue, but it has given BMCC only scant mention.
Meanwhile, BMCC—with 17,000 students—initially spent $75,000 on cleanup and testing, and continues to test for possible causes of faculty and student health problems, such as acquired asthma, upper-respiratory disease, chronic headaches, and itchy eyes and skin.
Unlike Stuyvesant, which was largely undamaged, BMCC lost Fiterman Hall, whose south face was razed when 7 World Trade Center collapsed. The newly renovated 15-story structure housed 40 classrooms, computer labs, and three floors that BMCC leased to private companies. Thirty percent of the building was destroyed and the school lost a site used for 6000 students and hundreds of classes each day.
After evacuation, BMCC was used by the Port Authority, the fire department and the military, and then in one week the school had to be cleaned and reorganized. BMCC had to create classrooms wherever they might fit within the remaining seven-story building. A large reception area, half of the student cafeteria, two student centers, the fitness center, and the school’s theater have all been converted into classrooms. Temporary trailers have been parked along one side of the campus to provide some of the 35 new rooms, and hundreds of desks were donated by schools from across the country. By the time the school reopened on October 1, the main building, which was originally designed for 8000 students, accommodated over 17,000.
The college estimates that it will take two years to repair Fiterman Hall. Until then, the school will have to continue to suffer the kind of crowding that forces students to congregate in one large room where rows of computer terminals stand next to tables and chairs, or in hallways throughout the building’s seven floors.
“I think that the actual [overcrowding] is something that we’re just starting to get annoyed about,” said Alice Borman, a 22-year-old student. “Up until a couple of weeks ago, we were just saying, ‘We’re alive, we’re OK!’ but now we’re starting to feel how close we all are. It definitely affects classwork.” And an arrangement to place 22 trailers accommodating 1200 students in the 135th Street City College parking lot means a long commute between Harlem and Lower Manhattan—not viable for many BMCC students who work or have families.
So far, BMCC estimates that the attacks have cost about $8 million, including lost tuition from 600 students who withdrew from school. School officials estimate an additional $3.5 million worth of computers, books, desks, and other equipment destroyed in Fiterman Hall and $1.1 million in lost lease revenue. They have requested aid from FEMA but are unsure how much they’ll get or when it will be available. In the meantime, the school has had to ask CUNY for a loan.
The situation is unlikely to improve very soon, because the modified budget for the coming year slates CUNY for a $9.7 million cut. About $1 million of that will be a hiring freeze. And for some there are already tuition hikes.
Professor Anne Friedman, Vice President of Community Colleges, believes that cutting BMCC’s budget adds insult to injury. “We were closed for three weeks, we lost one of our buildings, we have temporary trailers, and we have temporary classrooms. We lost some of our students who were either afraid to come back or decided they didn’t want to come back. There are still some serious questions about the air quality in the building. Our college was used as a national command post for three weeks and now to be cut like this is outrageous,” she said. “Our funding is rock-bottom to begin with. Any kind of cut will be a step backward.”
Stuyvesant, meanwhile, will not be cut, according to Board of Education officials. Asked why Stuyvesant had received more attention than BMCC, Friedman said, “Stuyvesant is the cream of the crop. They have active, educated parents. Maybe they have parents with connections.” What notable parents send their children there? According to Sam Blank, spokesperson for Manhattan high schools, “Senator [Chuck] Schumer. That’s all you need.”
Besides having fewer senators’ children, BMCC has a very different demographic from Stuyvesant. While Stuyvesant’s black and Latino populations each make up 4 percent of the student body, BMCC’s students are 38 percent black and 30 percent Latino. And according to Professor Bill Friedheim, the college’s students probably have “among the lowest income profiles of any college in the country—basically one of poverty.”
BMCC officials said the discrepancy between their $75,000 environmental cleanup and the $1 million Stuyvesant cleanup could be explained because Stuyvesant was more heavily used in the rescue effort, and BMCC had more initial and continuing cleanup than Stuyvesant.
“You have to realize [the Board of Education] has far larger coffers than we do,” explained Scott Anderson, BMCC’s Vice President of Administration and Planning. “They place a very high price tag on the students of Stuyvesant. Even the press made that apparent in the type of coverage Stuyvesant got coming back to school as opposed to BMCC. Anyone who looks at the comparative coverage would be amazed.”
BMCC faculty wonder if the fiscal crisis will mean a lower quality of education and another tuition hike. The hiring freeze in the budget means adjunct instructors will not be brought back. Losing adjunct professors would mean a decrease in class offerings and an increase in class size. They fear the recent tuition increase for the school’s undocumented foreign students, now required to pay out-of-state tuition instead of resident rates, will chase away many of those most in need of training and doesn’t bode well for the rest of the school.
Student services are also on the block, with plans to cut a third of the counselors from the counseling center during the academic year. “Right now, we have nine counselors for 17,000 students, students coming into the counseling center with trauma from losing classmates or relatives,” said James Blake, Professor of Social Work and Counseling.
Students and staff at BMCC appreciate that the citywide fiscal emergency will bring hardship for all New Yorkers, but worry that working-class minorities and immigrants will bear the greatest brunt of the economic downturn, just when they most acutely need job training and education.
“Many of the kids here, it’s amazing they’re here at all,” said Professor Jane Young. “They come from truly downtrodden backgrounds but they’re so hardworking. We’re really a conduit for the American Dream.”
Young says she’s not surprised that the city has turned a blind eye to BMCC or that it has been marginalized by the press. The media has long “trashed” the school, Young said. Recently, the Daily News ran an article citing complaints that money donated by the United Way to organizations that have suffered financially from the catastrophe was incorrectly allocated and should only go to families of WTC victims. BMCC and most of the other groups listed were advocates for minorities and the poor.
Student Borman remembered the day she came back to school “and there were these cameras standing on BMCC ground but they weren’t there to film BMCC. They were standing there to film the students going back to school at Stuyvesant. I was looking at them thinking they should turn around and see this whole other school behind them.”