As readers of this blog know, I have two sons, of whom I am inordinately proud. The younger is Tobias Barrington Wolff, who is now the Jefferson Barnes Fordham Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania. But he was not always thus. Forty years ago, he was a tow headed little boy called Toby, who had a difficult time getting a word in edgewise at a dinner table with a father who was a professor of Philosophy, a mother who was a professor of Literature, and a big brother who was a chess prodigy. When little Toby noted a lull in the conversation, he would, like as not, stick up a finger and say “two things …,” staking a claim to his share of air time.
On this slow Thursday afternoon, I find myself raising a finger and saying “two things,” to make a little room for myself before the comments flow in.
First thing, the future of higher education. Todd Gitlin, with whom I have been co-teaching these past two years, tells me that Columbia will not even announce plans for the fall semester until July. One plan being floated is to skip the fall semester entirely, push it to the spring, and use next summer for the spring semester. Columbia is rich, of course, and although their six billion dollar new Manhattanville campus has caused a budget freeze for Arts and Sciences, they have lots of money to ride out the disruptions. But a great many of America’s 4,600 college and university campuses are not so fortunate. I have been especially worried about the fate of the historically black colleges and universities, the HBCUs as they are called, some of which might be forced to close if they lose as little as one semester of tuition. Howard and Spelman will be just fine, but I am not at all sure of Bennett, where I spent a volunteer year seven or eight years ago. After the Congress gets done pouring hundreds of billions into the bottomless pockets of the airlines, the cruise ship companies, and Trump’s hotels, I hope they can spare a few score millions for the HBCUs.
Second thing, a word of praise for some genuine political leadership. Governor Andrew Cuomo announced today a program, starting next Wednesday, of daily sanitizing of the Greater New York City area’s subways and commuter rail system. This will be done between one and five a.m., during which the subways and commuter trains will be closed. Since many of the First Responders travel to or from work at that time, a system of free busses, limos, and ubers will be available to transport them. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who appeared with Cuomo by zoom at today’s press briefing, observed that this would mean rousting the homeless men and women who ride the subways all night long to get indoors. The city, he said, would us this opportunity to work with the homeless, to counsel them, to get them into city shelters, and perhaps in this way more effectively to address their needs. I almost teared up as I listened to him. It warmed by heart to see this sort of caring, thoughtful using of a terrible crisis in a generous fashion.
My old Afro-Am Department Chair [and later Bennett College President] Esther Terry would describe this in her down home North Carolina way as “making chicken salad out of chicken shit.” It gave me a moment of hope for this often disappointing country.