William Birenbaum


William (“Bill”) Marvin Birenbaum (1923-2010) served as dean of the New School for Social Research’s Adult Division (also known as “the Founding Division”) between 1961 and 1964. Although his time at The New School was brief, he made an immediate and in some cases lasting impact on the university. Birenbaum is best characterized as an activist administrator, continuously seeking to expand the communities served by institutions of higher education, with a particular focus on non-traditional students, community-based programming, and experimental pedagogical methods.

In his memoir, Something for Everybody Is Not Enough: An Educator’s Search for His Education (Random House, 1971), Birenbaum describes growing up in the small Jewish community of Waterloo, Iowa, where he divided his time between attending public school, playing football, and politely fending off conversion attempts, and studying and later teaching in the local cheder, a religious Jewish after-school program. Following high school graduation, he briefly enrolled in Iowa State Teachers College, but left to enlist in the United States Armed Forces during World War II, serving as a cryptographer stationed in Greenland.

Following military service, Birenbaum briefly returned to Iowa, then enrolled in the University of Chicago, where he earned a doctorate in law (1949) under an innovative program that allowed students to pursue doctoral degrees without first obtaining bachelor’s degrees. It was in Chicago that he first witnessed how northern urban universities enforce de facto segregation. Throughout his career, and even in retirement, Birenbaum criticized the entanglement between urban universities and real estate interests.

While at the University of Chicago, Birenbaum and other veterans founded the National Student Association to represent student interests on campuses nationwide. He traveled to Prague in 1948 as an American student representative to the World Student Congress and was deeply impressed by Czech college students leading an uprising against the Soviet occupation of their country. According to his memoir, this life-changing experience led to sympathy for student protestors that lasted throughout his administrative career, including times when his administration was the target of student dissatisfaction.

Following an administrative appointment at the University of Chicago, where he lived with his wife, communications researcher Helen Bloch Birenbaum, and their young children in a men’s dormitory, Birenbaum accepted a position at Wayne State University in downtown Detroit. Seeing a need for educational programming to serve automotive industry workers and their families in yet another segregated city, Birenbaum established a continuing education and cultural programming institute called, “Detroit Adventure.”

It was with this background that the New School for Social Research’s new president, Henry David, lured Birenbaum to New York City in the fall of 1961 to serve as dean of the adult education division of the New School for Social Research. Birenbaum was only in his mid-thirties. Shortly after his arrival on 12th Street, he discovered The New School to be in dire financial straits. In his assessment, the graduate division (the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, what is today known as NSSR), claimed an extraordinarily large portion of the overall budget. Additionally, the real estate developer family of the dean whom Birenbaum replaced, Clara W. Mayer, was a major donor to the university, and, as Dean Mayer had not willingly left her post, the family withdrew their support and the university was facing economic and administrative turmoil.

Despite (or because of) an uncertain financial outlook, Dean Birenbaum set about re-organizing the Adult Division upon arrival. He strengthened the school’s English language instruction program for adult learners, establishing the Center for English as a Second Language, and served as moderator of The New School’s unusual Model U.N., which was geared toward non-native English speakers.

Cultural programming at The New School under Birenbaum appears to have taken a cue from the successes of Detroit Adventure. In 1962, The New School’s inaugural Summer Festival, held in what is now the Vera List Courtyard, hosted Marianne Moore, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch, among other Village poets. The 1963 festival had a jazz focus, and included outdoor concerts by Thelonius Monk and the Horace Silver Quintet. Additionally, Birenbaum presided over the short-lived Dance Forum, established in 1962 as a center for experimental education in dance, headquartered in the newly dedicated Martha Graham Room.

Under Birenbaum’s tenure, the Institute for Retired Professionals was established at The New School, also in 1962. In a May 1964 speech to the Institute for Retired Professionals titled, “The Abolition of Unemployed Retirement,” Birenbaum states, “A successful adult education program is a serious challenge to the pretensions of the rest of the university.” This comment may have been a thinly veiled reference to the Graduate Faculty.

The New School had largely ignored New York’s African American population since the late 1940s, when W.E.B. Du Bois, Lawrence Dunbar Reddick, Cedric Dover, and other noted scholars briefly taught courses on African American history and culture. Following his experiences in Chicago and Detroit, where white civic leaders ignored the educational needs of African American and Puerto Rican communities, or only viewed them as candidates for vocational training, Birenbaum began exploring ways to connect with these populations in the New York metropolitan area, and even further afield.

Shortly after his arrival, he organized the Emancipation Centennial Lecture Series in 1962 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. This lecture series brought Brooklyn College History Department Chair John Hope Franklin to The New School as the inaugural speaker in the series. Birenbaum steadfastly supported Professor Daniel S. Anthony, Executive Director of Newark’s Human Rights Commission, in his efforts to bring civil rights activists to campus in 1964 for the American Race Crisis lecture series. When the university’s Board of Trustees forced Birenbaum and Anthony to rescind an invitation to Minister Malcolm X, Birenbaum went in person to apologize, an experience he chronicles in his memoir. In his final months at The New School, he began planning what became the Negro Writer’s Vision of America, a conference held at The New School in 1965 in conjunction with the Harlem Writer’s Guild. One little-explored endeavor Birenbaum participated in was an exchange program between The New School and nine Historically Black Colleges, mostly situated in the South. In 1963, Birenbaum represented the university at the Equality of Opportunity Conference, held at Holly Knoll College in Virginia. It is unclear why the project never came to fruition.

At The New School, Birenbaum established a deep, life-long friendship with philosophy professor Horace Kallen, which continued unabated until Kallen’s death in 1974. The two men co-taught an evening lecture course in the fall of 1963, “Education for a Free Society.” In Birenbaum’s papers, housed at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York (CUNY), one encounters numerous hand-written letters from Kallen to Birenbaum, in which the two discuss academic and political matters, arrange vacations, and infrequently reflect on their time at The New School. In an October 28, 1973 letter to Birenbaum, Kallen responds to Birenbaum’s account of having to rescind speaking invitations to both Malcolm X and Immanuel Velikovsky with, “So complete a break of the School’s commitments and a departure from precedent!” Kallen approved of Birenbaum’s efforts to publish and speak on the concept of white power, and supported Birenbaum after he publicly signed a letter of support for parents and community activists during the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike, a move that earned Birenbaum disapproval within New York’s Jewish community. When Birenbaum was inaugurated president of Staten Island Community College, he invited Kallen, then eighty-seven, as his guest of honor.

Another lasting friendship Birenbaum had was with Allen Austill, who joined the New School for Social Research in the summer of 1962 as associate dean in charge of education advising. Austill would eventually succeed Birenbaum as dean of the Adult Division after Birenbaum’s resignation. Interestingly, Austill was also a University of Chicago alumnus and his time there overlapped with Birenbaum’s. It remains to be discovered whether they knew each other in the late 1940s as students.

Because the records of John Everett, Henry David’s successor (the Board of Trustees deposed David in the spring of 1963), and Birenbaum’s own records in The New School Archives have yet to be processed, it is unknown what Birenbaum’s official reasons were for leaving The New School. In his memoir, Birenbaum presents his departure as stemming from the institution’s conservatism and his inability to effect the educational reforms he felt were necessary in the mid-1960s. In his papers is a cryptic letter from Birenbaum to SUNY-Buffalo labor historian Herbert Gutman, explaining his reasons for resigning (it is unclear what “the effort” refers to):

“It was because the New School’s effort did not explode that I left — not to the contrary. From my point of view it was a most unique experience, the material success resulting from what we set in motion there outstripped the progress, which in my estimate, counted; affluence, with a deadly certainty, buttressed the forces of conservatism, which, I mistakenly thought, required, at that juncture, affluence as the main weapon with which to attack. When the chips went down in the form of proposals for taking the important risks, the only response I could evoke was an offer of a higher salary for myself! That was the coup de grace…” (March 4, 1965).

After leaving The New School, Birenbaum remained in New York, becoming vice president and provost of Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus, where his public clashes with Chancellor Gordon Hoxie made headlines. [1] He worked with James Farmer, Robert Kennedy, and others on the initial proposal for what would eventually become Medgar Evers College, CUNY. Just prior to his assassination, Kennedy had tapped Birenbaum to lead his New York presidential campaign. Birenbaum moved on to Staten Island Community College (currently, College of Staten Island, CUNY), where he settled down to a longer reign as president (1968-1976). Again he attracted media attention, this time internationally. A strong advocate for a CUNY open admissions policy, Birenbaum and Professor Emile Chi led the first American academic study trip to the People’s Republic of China in July 1973, a group notably comprised of twenty-five community college students and faculty. In 1976, Birenbaum left New York to assume the presidency of Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Another non-traditional institution, Antioch was known for its work-study program that combined classroom learning with semesters of field experience. Birenbaum retired from academic administration in 1985.

While serving as president of Staten Island Community College, Birenbaum authored two books for general readers. Overlive: Power, Poverty, and the University (Delacorte, 1969) is a manifesto advocating immediate and far-reaching educational reform. Employing a title inspired by Max Lerner’s The Age of Overkill, Birenbaum calls traditional college campuses mini-welfare states that prevent students from maturing into productive members of the community, while simultaneously reproducing economic stratification. Something for Everybody Is Not Enough: An Educator’s Search for His Education (Random House, 1971) is an alternately humorous and poignant memoir about his life and career. His discussions of campus unrest, top-heavy administration, and student deaths from drugs, untreated mental illness and aggressive policing are eerily familiar in 2020.

[1] Bizarrely, Chancellor Hoxie was the son of Birenbaum’s childhood dentist in Waterloo, Iowa, according to his memoir.

Birenbaum’s widow, CUNY Professor Emeritus Helen Bloch-Birenbaum donated his papers to the College of Staten Island archives, where they are accessible for all who wish to consult them. Archivist Dr. James Kaser’s biographical note in the finding aid was invaluable in writing this entry and guiding my research. I thank CSI archivist Jeffrey Coogan for his hospitality during my visit and answering questions via e-mail afterwards.

Also at CSI is an illuminating oral history with Dr. Birenbaum, conducted in 2000 by Jeffrey Kroessler, a librarian now employed at John Jay College, CUNY.

Birenbaum’s memoir, Something for Everybody Is Not Enough: An Educator’s Search for

His Education (Random House, 1971), was extensively consulted in the writing of this profile.