Saluting a Place of Honor

At its first commencement as a degree-granting institution, Macaulay Honors College at CUNY marked the 10th anniversary of an idea that has burnished the image of the University.

The 300 members of the 2011 graduating class earned degrees in 64 fields, with many students having double or triple majors. A third graduated summa cum laude. Fifty-one were elected to the Phi Beta Kappa national honor society. Six delivered graduation speeches at their home colleges. And among them were recipients of Rhodes, Coro, Fulbright, Gilman, Goldwater, Merage, Salk, Truman and Watson Fellowships or Scholarships.

Chancellor Goldstein and philanthropist William E. Macaulay preside at Honors College graduation.

More than 1,000 alumni are out in the world as teachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, entrepreneurs and more, “defining success in 1,000 different ways,” as Dean Ann Kirschner put it.

Starting this year, Macaulay students will receive a joint diploma bearing the names of both Macaulay Honors College and their home college. The state greenlighted degree-granting authority, which the Board of Trustees had sought to spotlight Macaulay’s unique contribution to students’ education; to foster a stronger sense of community among students; and to further showcase Macaulay’s ongoing success in attracting, supporting and retaining outstanding students.

At the commencement at Alice Tully Hall in June, former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who received Macaulay’s first honorary doctorate, recalled the reasons behind the institution’s founding while lauding the man who conceived it, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein.

“There was a time, before Matt came here [as chancellor in September 1999], when City University had lost the luster that it had when I grew up and went to public school here in New York City,” Klein told the graduates and their families and friends. “For far too long, City University depreciated the value of education and substituted a false equality for an excellence-driven institution. This man, a little more than a decade later, has transformed this university. It’s not only a measure of his leadership, it’s a measure of his values. And at the center of that transformational effort was the notion that excellence and equality could reside together, but that it had to be based on excellence.

“Macaulay Honors College, both literally and symbolically, became the flagship in this array of educational institutions. It sent a powerful signal. Now, a little over a decade later, everyone will talk about what CUNY has accomplished. But it accomplished that because of the leadership of a great man,” Klein said.

For his part, Goldstein honored philanthropist and venture capitalist William E. Macaulay (City College, 1966) and his wife, ornithologist Linda Macaulay. “None of this would be happening at CUNY today were it not for their largesse, their vision and their commitment to this extraordinary institution,” he said.

Chancellor Goldstein conceived of an honors college as a way of attracting gifted students who were choosing elite private schools over CUNY and to add luster to a university that, as Klein described, fairly or not had fallen in public esteem.

This program for select students attending Baruch, Brooklyn, City, Hunter, Lehman and Queens Colleges and the College of Staten Island began in 2001; John Jay College of Criminal Justice has plans to join the group next year. It offers free tuition; special academic programs, including four core seminars related to New York City, and entrée to the city’s cultural institutions; $7,500 academic spending accounts usable for international learning; and laptop computers, among other perks.

In 2006, William Macaulay donated $30 million to buy and transform a 1904 Manhattan townhouse into a home for the Honors College, as well as to defray tuition and other costs. He and his wife have been deeply involved in its programs and often drop in to see what students are doing. Other donors, such as the New York Life Insurance Foundation, also have supported the honors college.

Consistent with Chancellor Goldstein’s vision, Macaulay Honors College quickly created a halo effect that illuminates the general resurgence of the University. Consider this: For the class of 2015, 4,087 topflight applicants competed for 500 slots at Macaulay. And this: About 30 percent of applicants who are not accepted into the program enroll in other CUNY colleges.

Students provided an unexpected tribute to Goldstein, as well.

Graduating senior Daniel Cowen (Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College) imagined with droll humor how the chancellor’s ideas for the Honors College developed similarly to inspirations of three slightly more famous historical talents: composer Richard Wagner, author Herman Melville and physicist Albert Einstein.

Phoebe d’Heurle, also of Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College, presented Goldstein with her sculpture of an infinity knot, a knot without beginning or end. From Celts to Tibetans to the proverbial marriage knot to the mathematical symbol, an infinity knot has symbolized the eternity of life, nature and love.

Speaking for the graduates, Anita Sonawane, an economics major at Macaulay Honors College at Queens College, put their Macaulay education in perspective. “We graduate not only as students of our respective colleges, but also as the ambassadors of the City University of New York. A great burden rests on our shoulders — to leave our city not less but, rather, greater than we found it.

“We were born of this city, and we must see to its future regardless of where our own path leads us. If we look around us — the issues are there. Homelessness … has risen to levels of the Great Depression. The quality of our infrastructure, our subway system, for example, dwindles. Only 63 percent of students graduate from public secondary schools. And New York leads the 25 largest cities in the United States in [wealth] inequality. Yet, I believe that no other students of this city have considered or contemplated these issues as we have, and that no other students are more qualified to solve these problems. Of that I am certain,” Sonawane said.

A Surprise Tribute to William E. Macaulay

In a surprise tribute, the graduates of the honors college that bears his name inducted William E. Macaulay, a 1966 honors graduate of City College, into their class at their graduation ceremony.

“Mr. Macaulay has said that if it were not for CUNY, he would not have been able to attend college,” said 2006 Macaulay Honors College at City College graduate Deborah March, a doctoral student in African-American and American studies at Yale. “Of course, this is a familiar story for us, for if it were not for Mr. Macaulay, so many of us would not be here today, debt-free and ready to move on with our lives.”

Summoning him to the lectern, she added, “The Class of 2011 has a reputation for wanting to make an impact on the world, and so, who better to join their ranks than you, Mr. Macaulay, whose commitment to this institution will be a testament to your vision and your character for generations.”

She presented him with a replica of the medallion that adorns the college’s new ceremonial mace, which was a gift this year from Baruch alumna Lyn Rosensweig and Hunter alumnus Bruce Schnelwar in honor of her mother, Fern Rosensweig.

“This is a surprise and an honor,” said a grinning Macaulay. “This is way better than what I got when I originally graduated. On my diploma they actually spelled my name wrong. This is a big improvement – they got my name right! I’m very pleased to be a member of your class. Thank you!”