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Karl Grossman

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SUNY College at Old Westbury: A Model of Diversity

SUNY College at Old Westbury.

Long Island is the 10th “most racially segregated metropolitan area” in the U.S., says Elaine Gross, founder and president of the Syosset-based organization Erase Racism. That’s a result of racially restrictive covenants — banned by the Supreme Court in 1948 — and racial steering by real estate agents, sending whites to certain areas, minorities to others. That’s illegal, too, but still common.

But there is an island of diversity on Long Island, a remarkable exception to this pattern, a place where people mix: SUNY/College at Old Westbury. Experiencing diversity is a major part of the educational process at the college. 

It has to do with the numbers 30:30:30:10. The vision has been to be college with a student body of 30 percent African-Americans, 30 percent white, 30 percent Latino and10 percent Asian-American, Native American and foreign. This is inclusionary, not exclusionary. If the percentage dips in any group, there is an effort to up it.

The college was established in the 1960s as an innovative, indeed experimental, SUNY campus. John Maguire became its president in 1970. He came from a family representative of the segregationist South. His grandfather was lieutenant governor of Alabama. 

“You could not imagine a more conservative, racist man,” he recounted when I interviewed him when he returned to Old Westbury to be the commencement speaker several years ago. 

As a sophomore at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, he saw a sign posted about a conference in Pennsylvania for prospective ministers. It was a chance to go to the North, where he had never been. 

When he got to the Crozer Theological Seminary he was advised that he would room with a Crozer student “from Atlanta, Georgia…You’ll like him…He’s already been named the president of the student body.” 

The other young man was Martin Luther King, Jr. And that began “a long friendship and it was a glorious friendship,” a “transformative element no doubt…in my life….We became wonderful, fast friends.” 

Maguire became deeply involved in the civil rights movement and was a Freedom Rider. When he came to SUNY/Old Westbury he and the faculty developed a plan to thoroughly mix people — based on 30:30:30:10. The concept was, explained Dr. Maguire, “no one would feel left out, but it wasn’t so big that one group ruled the other.” The students “came together” and began “to say, ‘he’s not so bad, she’s not so bad,’ and sure enough friendships developed, and it was…remarkable.”

It still is.

I’ve been a professor at the college since 1978 and I marvel watching the students come together and develop understandings and friendships. When a new academic year begins, some African-American students from Wyandanch might sit together and several Latinos from Brentwood might sit together and a couple of Chinese-American students from Flushing might sit together and several white students from Plainview might sit together.

But by the following week, an African-American student is sitting next to a Latino student, a Chinese-American student is sitting next to a white student — indeed all the students have mixed together. Many had never before gotten to know those of other ethnicities and races.

“Old Westbury is rightfully celebrated as a college community that brings people of all races, creeds, and socio-economic backgrounds together,” says Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, who recently retired as president of the college after 20 years. “Being designated among the top diverse campuses in the country …. reinforces that Old Westbury is at the forefront of cultivating intercultural understanding and global citizenship in its students.”

In its SUNY Old Westbury Magazine in 2018, the college reported that the prior year’s entering class was 31 percent white, 27 percent African-American, 25 percent Latino, 12 percent Asian-American and 5 percent “international and other backgrounds.” The two-page spread was headed, “In the Spirit of ’30:30:30:10.’” It ended with: “The model founded in those earlier days continues…and prospers.”

The faculty, administration and staff are also fully diverse.

It’s an extraordinary model needing to be replicated — on Long Island and elsewhere.

Taking A Page From The Old Daily Long Island Press

It’s a thrill writing a column for the Long Island Press again after all these years. For it was at the original Long Island Press where I started writing a column decades ago.

I was hired as a reporter for the Long Island Press in 1964. I was given a column in 1969. Because the paper ceased publication in 1977, there are very few of us from the original Press still practicing journalism after 43 years. 

With the original Press going out, I took an alternative career highway: becoming a professor of journalism at SUNY/Old Westbury, continuing to do investigative reporting but on TV, radio, in books, magazines, and newspapers, too, and in recent years on the Internet.

The Press was an easy place to work. It was a friendly place. But also a quirky place.

For example, after being hired I was told I would not exactly be working for the Press but for ABC News Service. I was instructed to leave the Press building in Jamaica, walk a block to Jamaica Avenue, and there would be a kosher butcher and above it ABC News Service.

Up a flight of stairs from the butcher was what looked like a stage set for a show about journalism in the 1920s. There were booths with antique phones and not a reporter at those booths now. 

But there was a most affable fellow, Barney Confessore, who put me on the payroll of ABC News Service—through which I would work for the Press.

What was involved was a scheme through which the Newhouse family, which owned the paper, were able to avoid putting people on its unionized payroll.

There were some Press reporters, such as all those who covered Queens, on it. This was because of the clout of the Newsday Guild of New York City. But reporters who worked in Nassau and Suffolk Counties were on the ABC payroll. I was told as the years went by that the Newhouse family commonly did this.

After I received journalism awards and it became problematic for The Press to publish a story about me as of ABC News Service receiving an honor, I was shifted to the Press payroll and said to be the only reporter in Nassau or Suffolk on it.

I quickly learned at the Press about the influence powerful people have over some media. Robert Caro in his book The Power Broker on Robert Moses told of how Moses had New York City newspapers in his pocket. Before the Press I spent two years at the Babylon Town Leader challenging the four-lane highway Moses pushed to build on Fire Island.

On my first day at the Press as a cops-and-courts reporter, I was called by an editor who said I should understand I was never to write a story about Moses or a commission or authority he headed. I asked what should I do if there was a fatal auto accident on Southern State Parkway. 

“Give it to another reporter,” I was told.

Water Quantity, Not Just Quality, Of Concern on Long Island

bethpage toxic plume
(Shutterstock photo)

On Long Island there’s been “a lot of focus on water quality but not enough on water quantity,” says John Turner, a leading local environmentalist long involved in water issues. 

He was legislative director of the New York State Water Resource Commission and director of Brookhaven Town’s Division of Environmental Protection. He’s conservation policy advocate at Seatuck Environmental Association in Islip. 

“It’s a constant challenge to inform people on how they get their water — where it comes from,” he says. Long Islanders “don’t see” the “groundwater reservoir” below, their sole source of potable water. 

There’s been increasing concern over the years about chemical contaminants in the island’s water supply, he notes. But quantity is an equivalent problem.

Nassau County has been hit by a lowering of its water table because 85 percent of the county is sewered and all these sewage treatment plants rely on outfall of wastewater into surrounding waterways.

In Suffolk, 30 percent sewered, the Southwest Sewer District’s Bergen Point Sewage Treatment Plant sends millions of gallons a day of wastewater through an outfall pipe into the Atlantic Ocean, and smaller sewage plants send wastewater into bays and Long Island Sound.

In Nassau, lakes, ponds, and streams, which are the “uppermost expression of the aquifer system, have dropped considerably,” says Turner. Hempstead Lake “is Hempstead Pond.” There’s no longer a Valley Stream in Valley Stream.  

It doesn’t have to be this way, he emphasizes. In Suffolk, starting in 2016, the Riverhead Sewage Treatment Plant began sending treated effluent to the county’s adjoining Indian Island Golf Course. This has provided irrigation nitrogen and fertilization, and wastewater is “no longer finding its way into the marine environment” to cause algae blooms.

The key, says Turner, is water “reuse.”

“We’ve been calling for the counties or the State of New York to put together an islandwide water reuse roadmap.”

For if Nassau and Suffolk destroy their underground water supply — as Brooklyn and Queens did years ago from over pumping and entry into the water table of saltwater — there’ll be no rescue from New York City, he says. 

The city gets its water from upstate reservoirs. There’s been talk recently of Nassau buying water from the city. But its reservoirs are near capacity. 

“New York City has not been welcoming Nassau County with open arms,” says Turner. Another alternative is desalinization but that’s “incredibly energy intense and expensive.” 

Water reuse is a Long Island essential.