From Student Activist to Gotham’s Mayor

Peter Wood

A version of this article originally appeared at City Journal and Minding the Campus on November 14, 2013.

Congratulations to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who will succeed Michael Bloomberg in governing America’s premier city.  De Blasio’s overwhelming victory over his Republican opponent Joe Lhota—de Blasio took 73 percent of the vote—is a pretty convincing mandate from the electorate. 

A mandate for what?  My interest in partisan politics narrows pretty quickly to questions about how our elected officials will influence higher education and how in turn they will be influenced by colleges and universities.  This isn’t because I don’t care about little matters such as jobs, the business climate, taxes, keeping the city safe from terrorists, public transportation, locking up felons, and so on.  But these topics have their own minders, and these days I’m mainly interested in minding the campus.  Colleges and universities are pivotal institutions.  The ideas they advance and the attitudes they foster today elect presidents, pass legislation, and set national agendas tomorrow. 

The Education of an Activist

De Blasio’s biography isn’t especially rich on the details about his education, but his views are so far outside the mainstream of American politics that reporters have begun to dig around in a quest to see how he came to acquire his left-wing activism.

Mayor de Blasio took a bachelor’s degree from New York University in 1984.  The date is sometimes reported as 1983, but according to The New York Daily News, he failed to graduate on time in May1983, and was awarded his degree nine months later.  De Blasio explains this as a matter of his not completing coursework on time, but the Daily News paints a larger picture of de Blasio as an undergraduate student activist who defied a letter he had received from the NYU administration, warning him not to go ahead with a demonstration he was planning inside the Bobst Library.  He and 40 other students nonetheless marched into the library and attempted to disrupt a board of trustees meeting. 

This was far from being a one-off venture.  As the New York Times put it, at NYU de Blasio “helped found a student coalition that took up the causes of scrutinizing the university’s finances and increasing student input in decision-making.”  The Daily News provided a more circumstantial account.  De Blasio majored in “Metropolitan Studies,” which featured courses such as “The Politics of Minority Groups” and “The Working Class Experience.”  In other words, it was a major in political activism similar to what universities now label as majors in “social justice” or “peace studies.”  De Blasio proceeded quickly from theory to practice by helping to found the “Coalition for Student Rights,” which agitated for direct election of students to student government, putting a student on the board of trustees, and getting the university administration to “release financial information to justify planned tuition hikes.” 

As a candidate for mayor, de Blasio promised tax increases for wealthy New Yorkers.  It will be interesting to see how much of that financial transparency he campaigned for as a student will survive into his mayoralty. 

Even before his college days, in high school, de Blasio had tried his hand at student organizing.  The New York Daily News provided a well-reported account of his family history back to his paternal grandfather, who graduated from Harvard in 1911, befriended the young Franklin D. Roosevelt, and had a successful career as a writer.  The political gene ran in the family.  As a twelve-year-old, de Blasio was already organizing his classmates to change the system.   “He pressured his middle school to give sixth- and seventh-graders hearings before they were disciplined. It was his first successful campaign.”  Before long, according to the Times, he was attending “rallies against nuclear energy.”

After de Blasio finished at NYU, he received a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.  The date for this is hard to pin down.  Even the New York Times chronology of his life omits it, though Columbia does claim him as an alumnus.  In any case, by 1988, at age 26 and master’s degree in hand, de Blasio was in Nicaragua, working to support the governing Sandinistas. 

The Sandinista Interlude

After NYU, de Blasio was drawn into American agitation on behalf of the communist revolutionaries in Latin America.  It was this that led him to enroll in his master’s degree program at Columbia.   When he finished that degree he headed straight into “opposing the American intervention in Nicaragua.” 

He became, for a period, an ardent supporter of the Sandinistas, and as the Times put it, “got a glimpse of the possibilities of an unabashedly liberal society, with broad access to health care, literacy and property.”  On returning from Nicaragua he worked for the Quixote Center in Maryland to ship “food, clothing and supplies to the country, often to Sandinista families.”  And then he moved back to New York to work as a volunteer for Nicaragua Solidarity Network.  He raised money and sold newspapers for the Sandinistas. 

This is not to say he was entirely uncritical of the movement.  As the Times gently puts it, “He felt the ruling Sandinista government of Nicaragua would be too controlling.” 

“Too controlling” is one way to describe a regime that is credited with “killing and imprisoning about 15,000 innocent people” and carrying out the mass murders of the entire leadership of the native Indian population.  The Sandinista record included about 8,000 executions of political prisoners during their first three years in power (1979-1981), following by the forced “resettlement” of 200,000 Nicaraguans. 

De Blasio isn’t the least embarrassed by this chapter in his life.  As he told the Times recently, "My work was based on trying to create a more fair and inclusive world."

A Higher Education Agenda

In his mayoral campaign de Blasio had a lot to say about K-12 education and pre-K education, but relatively little on higher education.  In the K-12 arena, de Blasio expressed sharp skepticism about charter schools, attended by 6 percent of New York City children.  A major theme of his campaign was his plan to raise the marginal income tax rate on taxpayers earning over $500,000 from 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent to fund “universal pre-K education” and “after school programs for middle school kids.”  Chester Finn at the Fordham Institute tallied up 24 de Blasio school reform proposals, and gave various thumbs-up and thumbs-down.  Finn praised the idea of “getting every child to read by third grade,” but dismissed the “preschool promise” as “over-the-top unaffordable.”  And Finn brushed aside nine of de Blasio’s proposals as “crowd-pleasing rhetoric that’s essentially impossible to turn into anything serious.”

But what about higher ed?  De Blasio gave a speech in which he favored creating new science and technology programs at City University of New York, and he also favors good jobs in the city for the graduates of these proposed programs.  According to Inside Higher Ed, de Blasio has made increased spending on CUNY “a budget priority.”  He has promised to find $150 million in new funds for the university.  New York, of course, has dozens of other colleges and universities, but CUNY is directly under the mayor’s control. 

This means that he will have to deal with the raging controversy that grew out of Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to expedite the granting of CUNY four-year degrees to the graduates of CUNY’s two-year associate degree programs.  The Bloomberg fast-track is called, naturally, Pathways.  And it has aroused furious opposition from the CUNY faculty union and from CUNY faculty generally.  The controversy is rich with implications far beyond New York City and State.

Essentially, CUNY is a once-great university that was brought low by an open admissions policy, but then gradually recovered by shunting the less-able students into associate degree programs.  The pivotal year—the pivotal year for many higher education disasters in the United States—was 1969, when a black and Puerto Rican-based protest prompted the board of trustees to switch to open admissions.  Within a year, enrollments soared from 20,000 freshmen to 35,000.  Minority enrollments tripled.  Academic standards, unfortunately, crumbled. 

Eventually the university stabilized by treating some of its constituent colleges as honors programs and allowing them to set fairly rigorous entrance and degree requirements.  But that also led to a large number of minority students crowded into the two-year programs.  The academic ill-preparedness of these students, who are overwhelmingly graduates of New York City Public Schools, did not fit well with the City’s narrative about improvements in public education.  Thus, Pathways was born as a way of ushering the graduates of the two-year programs through the four-year colleges, standards notwithstanding. 

This summary can hardly do justice to the complicated politics of the situation in which de Blasio now finds himself.  As an advocate for a more “fair and inclusive world,” de Blasio would certainly like to ensure that much greater percentages of minority students end up with four-year CUNY diplomas. But as a champion of unions who especially enjoys the favor of the professorial class, he is faced with a furious bunch of faculty members who don’t want their classes overwhelmed by students who are nowhere close to having the appropriate skills.

De Blasio has so far balanced himself delicately on the fence.  According to Inside Higher Ed

Asked what he thought about Pathways, and the faculty criticism of it, de Blasio said: "As mayor, I would take additional steps to evaluate the effectiveness of a curriculum that has been rejected so dramatically by faculty. The experience and training that faculty members bring to their profession must be taken into consideration during curriculum development, or we risk sacrificing the academic quality of our city’s institutions."

That’s an example of restating the problem in lieu of having anything to say about the solution.

Let’s note that the CUNY situation models the larger problem in the United States.  President Obama in February 2009 declared his policy objective of making the United States the nation with the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020.  That would have, in effect, required doubling the number of students attending college.  Obama subsequently lowered the bar by saying that merely attending college for a while would suffice; four-year degrees were just an option.  His plan is in no danger of being realized but it remains in play and serves as a rallying point for those who believe that “social justice” is served by ushering as many young people as possible onto the moving walkway to college degrees.  That a great many of these new students lack the ability and ambition to make much of the opportunity seems not to deter the advocates, who are likewise unfazed by the diminishing value of college degrees that represent very little real achievement. 

CUNY open admissions was the first grand experiment in the United States for trading off high academic standards for mass production of degrees.  It was a fiasco that continues to vex policy makers.  What will de Blasio do?

Social Justice and Sustainability

All the way back to his days in Cambridge, Massachusetts, public schools, de Blasio has been an avid consumer of trendy left-wing causes and a ready exponent of public policies based on progressive clichés.  I’m glad that that late gasp of agitprop from a dying Soviet Union, the nuclear freeze movement, wilted away.  Its activists wanted the West to unilaterally disarm.  But faced with President Reagan’s unrelenting determination to maintain our nuclear deterrent, the Soviet leaders finally negotiated real reductions of the nuclear stockpiles.  Where was de Blasio while this was going on?  He was supporting the nuclear freeze movement, organizing as a college student for the pro-freeze Physicians for Social Responsibility, and—not so incidentally—taking a trip to the Soviet Union.

A tour through the causes that de Blasio supported over the years is like a stroll though a junkyard of rusted-out, smashed-out, and wrong-headed ideas.  Most of those, of course, found their most ardent supporters on campus.  And so it appears that de Blasio has returned to the source for his current ideas of progressive reform. 

The magazine Blue & Green Tomorrow:  Ethical Investment and Sustainable Living has nicely summed up de Blasio as “Bringing Social Justice and Sustainability to New York.”  Journalist Matthew D’Ancona is quoted breathlessly declaiming that de Blasio’s election means “socialism is no longer a bogey word in New York.”  Social welfare has a promising future as one form of the new emphasis on social justice.  But de Blasio is also committed to “radically reducing carbon use” and instituting a wide variety of “sustainability measures.” 

Social justice and sustainability are, of course, the dominant campus ideologies of our time.  The words are meant to secure instant approbation, not a careful weighing of gains and losses.  “Social justice” for New Yorkers might translate into something like less effective law enforcement and higher rates of crime.  “Sustainability” probably means keeping upstate impoverished by foreclosing the development of the natural gas reserves that are bringing financial bonanzas to other states, such as Pennsylvania.  A mayor can do only so much on matters like that, but de Blasio certainly knows that liberal environmentalism in New York City is the center of opposition to upstate fracking.  That probably explains his endorsement of Governor Cuomo’s successful ballot initiative to authorize the development of casinos in the state.  (Instead of a profitable energy sector in New York’s outback, we’ll give the denizens jobs as blackjack dealers.) 


De Blasio the former campus activist has a thin record of actually serving in office.  Moreover, the positions he has held have more the flavor of advocate than executive.  Indeed one of them was the citywide office of City Public Advocate.  He has also served as a member of the New York City Council.  How well will he make the transition to governing the city? 

I am not among the 73 percent of voters who thought it would be a good idea to find out.  The signature phrases lifted from the gabble of campus activism make me uneasy.  His psychological ease with groups like the Sandinistas makes me apprehensive.  His readiness to risk the prosperity and security of the city in the name of “fairness” gives me the fantods. 

But the people have spoken.  The Metropolitan Studies major is now the Metropolitan-in-Chief.  


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