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CM-22: A Guide to the William M. Birenbaum Collection

Identifier: CM-22

Scope and Contents

The William M. Birenbaum Papers consist primarily of materials that document Birenbaum’s achievements as a writer and thinker who drew upon his personal experiences and work in higher education administration to suggest changes in the relationship between colleges and universities and American culture, particularly in the area of broadening access. Birenbaum retained copies of his writings and presentations and the core of this collection is a chronological arrangement of his works. Although only a few working drafts are present (usually of articles), researchers will be able to trace the emergence of his positions on key issues of the day through the variety and quantity of materials present in the collection. The rest of the papers provide institutional, personal, and social context for Birenbaum’s writings. Birenbaum’s own reflections on his career are present in a draft manuscript for an autobiography entitled “The Inauguration.” Correspondence files include materials received and retained copies of materials sent. In addition to speaker invitations, expressions of gratitude, and congratulatory notes, there are many letters in which correspondents react to the content of Birenbaum’s presentations and writings so that researchers can get a sense of the way his friends and acquaintances received his ideas. In addition, correspondence files include reactions to Birenbaum’s career transitions. These are particularly revealing when Birenbaum was forced to resign from a position. Extensive news clippings files document Birenbaum’s speaking engagements and provide further context for understanding the cultural context for his ideas and his achievements and the controversies over his administrative appointments. In addition to supplementing the files of literary productions and correspondence, this material adds to the subject files present in the collection. The relatively few subject files mostly document the personal component of Birenbaum’s presidencies. However, four other subject files are of particular note. As Dean at the Long Island University, Brooklyn Center campus, Birenbaum’s ideas about inclusiveness brought him into conflict with archconservative university chancellor Gordon Hoxie. A subject file documents some of the issues, but also illustrates the broad support Birenbaum had from faculty and students. In the subject file on The Education Affiliate, one sees Birenbaum in a more congenial setting as an advocate for an institution of higher education in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant that would not only be accessible to people of color from impoverished backgrounds in a way that most colleges and universities were not, but would also have an immediate relationship with the cultural context of the students. Finally, the Horace Kallen subject file documents Birenbaum’s long relationship with the philosopher who was a founder of The New School, and reveals the rapport that developed between the two because of their shared understanding of the way in which cultural pluralism strengthens institutions and nations. Of final note among the subject files is the large amount of material within the Staten Island Community College subject file that documents a study tour to China that Birenbaum led in 1973. Birenbaum was so inspired by bringing students into contact with a culture entirely “other” to them that he planned a book on the topic, some notes for which and a précis are in the files. Researchers are reminded that they will need to consult the archives of the several colleges where Birenbaum worked to gain a better understanding of the institutional contexts for his career.


  • Creation: 1946 - 1985

Biographical / Historical

A nationally-known advocate for higher education reform, Dr. William M. Birenbaum was born in Macomb, Illinois July 18, 1923. He grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where he received his high school education. Dr. Birenbaumnthen attended Iowa State Teachers College for one semester before he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces. He served for two years between 1942 and 1943 where he was assigned to the intelligence corps in Greenland for code and cipher analysis. After the military, Dr. Birenbaum was admitted directly into the law school at the University of Chicago. He was awarded the doctor of law degree jointly by the Law School and the Graduate School Humanities Division in 1949. While at the University he helped found the National Student Association and was very active in the organization’s growth and development. Dr. Birenbaum developed a close association with Chancellor Robert Maynard Hutchins. Dr. Hutchins invited Dr. Birenbaum to hold a number of positions at the University including director of men’s residence halls (during law school), Assistant Dean of Students, and finally Dean of Students from 1955 to 1957. In addition, he taught social science courses in the College. Dr. Birenbaum left Chicago for Wayne State University where he was Assistant Vice President, Division of Graduate Instruction and Research. He garnered regional attention as director of Detroit Adventure, a consortium of cultural institutions housed at Wayne State, by his innovative programming and efforts to convince decision-makers that investing in education and the arts could drive economic development in the troubled city of Detroit. In recognition of his efforts, Governor G. Mennen Williams appointed Dr. Birenbaum chairman of the newly created Michigan Cultural Commission in 1960. In 1961, Dr. Birenbaum was appointed Dean of The New School for Social Research, a post he held until 1964, where he strengthened the adult education component of the School. During this time, Dr. Birenbaum formed a life-long friendship with Dr. Horace Kallen, a founder of the New School and renowned philosopher and pluralist. Dr. Kallen was known for his belief that a nation is not weakened but strengthened by cultural diversity. He was the first to coin the term “cultural pluralism.” Dr. Birenbaum’s next academic appointment was as Vice President and Provost of The Brooklyn Center of Long Island University from 1964 to 1967. Dr. Birenbaum advocated for integration of city and university. He reached out to the community in unprecedented ways, demonstrating that education was a needed opportunity for all citizens, especially ones economically challenged. These years underpinned the authoring of his first book, Overlive: Power, Poverty and the University. Dr. Birenbaum’s approach was reflected in his policies that promoted student rights, eliminated an outdated dress code and advocated for a lower tuition. Increased fees were championed by the Chancellor, Gordon Hoxie, to increase University revenues. Ultimately, Chancellor Hoxie and Dr. Birenbaum disagreed on these key issues and on Dr. Birenbaum’s approach to integrate community and university. Chancellor Hoxie demanded Dr. Birenbaum’s resignation in the face of the overwhelming support of the faculty, who voted four to one for retaining Dr. Birenbaum in his post. Dr. Birenbaum’s departure provoked a student strike and mass demonstrations of support, making the front pages of the press, including the New York Times. The dispute was not settled with Dr. Birenbaum’s departure. The University’s Board of Trustees requested Chancellor Hoxie’s resignation the following year. At the time of his resignation, Dr. Birenbaum was approached by Senator Robert F. Kennedy to head The Education Affiliate, a non-profit organization advocating for higher education in the troubled Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in New York City. The group worked with the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, an association that raised private sector money from significant donors to implement Senator Kennedy’s idea to rebuild inner-city neighborhoods by creating jobs and businesses. Higher education was crucial to this vision and Dr. Birenbaum helped to create and promote a proposal that came to be known as the “Campus in the City.” In 1968, the Chancellor of the City University of New York (C.U.N.Y.), Albert Bowker, recruited Dr. Birenbaum to become the president of Staten Island Community College (S.I.C.C.). The community college concept was taking off at that time. Community colleges constituted the doorway for low income and immigrant students to enter higher education. Dr. Birenbaum became an outspoken advocate of "open admissions" to provide higher education to anyone who wanted it. Dr. Birenbaum rallied support from educators nationally, like Clark Kerr, for the policy of open admissions and the role of community colleges in access to higher education. He met with success in raising Staten Island Community College’s visibility and during his tenure there published the books for which he is known: Overlive: Power, Poverty and the University, New York: Delacorte, 1969; and Something for Everybody is Not Enough: An Educator’s Search for His Education, New York: Random House, 1971. Dr. Birenbaum’s advocacy of open admissions internationalized his reputation. He was invited by the Chinese Government to lead a study mission to the People’s Republic of China shortly after the country "opened" to the United States under President Nixon. The study mission, comprised of students, faculty, and administrators from S.I.C.C., went to Beijing (then Peking) and met with senior educators of Peking and Shanghai universities. Dr. Birenbaum also consulted with the University of Zambia. He was invited to speak at conferences on education in Europe such as the Salzburg Seminars where he worked with and befriended educators, policymakers, and artists (like authors Maria Mannes and Alvin Toffler). Dr. Birenbaum was cited for his ideas by Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme William O. Douglas in one of Douglas’ decisions. In 1976, when C.U.N.Y. merged S.I.C.C. with a two-year senior college, Dr. Birenbaum turned down the presidency and departed S.I.C.C. for Antioch University. Antioch recruited Dr. Birenbaum through senior members of the Board of Trustees at that institution including Chairman Douglas Ades, and Samuel Peabody. Dr. Birenbaum was attracted to Antioch’s reputation as a leading progressive college focused on work-study. The institution was financially challenged, and Dr. Birenbaum worked successfully with the Board of Trustees and major donors to return the institution to a solid financial footing. Dr. Birenbaum continued writing and speaking on the centrality of a higher education for all Americans and the ways in which institutions of higher education needed to challenge their orthodoxies to meet society’s demands for an educated population. For example, Dr. Birenbaum was a supporter of Antioch Law School’s mission to provide equal access to justice for low income Americans. The law school mission and curriculum was supported by Chief Justice Warren Burger. At this time, Dr. Birenbaum also began to advocate to the American corporate sector; to urge corporate America to hire the graduates from open admissions universities and progressive colleges like Antioch. Dr. Birenbaum maintained a close family life throughout his career. He was deeply committed to his wife, Helen Bloch-Birenbaum, who is currently Executive Director of the Stanton/Heiskell Telecommunications Policy Center at the Graduate Center of the C.U.N.Y.; an institute she founded with Frank Stanton and Andrew Heiskell to study the effects of emerging technologies on society. Dr. Birenbaum’s relationships with his children and grandchildren in New York and at a summer residence in Wellfleet, Cape Cod, shaped all of them. He loved his dogs Duncan and Molly. Dr. Birenbaum retired in 1985, enjoying family life and dividing his time between his long-time residence in Brooklyn Heights and Wellfleet. He passed away on October 4, 2010 and is survived by his wife, the former Helen Bloch, whom he married in 1951; his daughter Lauren Gates; his son Charles; and grandchildren Alexander, Jason, Benjamin, and Julia. His daughter Susan preceded him in death in 2008.


8.75 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



This collection documents the career of William M. Birenbaum, internationally renowned educator and former President of Staten Island Community College.



SCRAPBOOKS PHOTOGRAPHS NEWS CLIPPINGS PRINTED MATERIALS SPECIAL HANDLING BECAUSE OF FORMAT Related Material There is a 2001 interview available in Volume VIII of the Oral History Transcripts in Archives and Special Collections. Birenbaum’s published books have been catalogued and shelved with the book collection of Archives & Special Collections.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was donated by Helen Birenbaum

Processing Information

Collection processed by Roman Yurchenko, Jeffrey Coogan and James A. Kaser, Ph.D.

Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the CSI Archives & Special Collections Repository