Milton Bassin Dies at 88; Expanded York College

August 20, 2012 | Staff

By DENNIS HEVESI

August 19, 2012

Milton Bassin, who as president of York College in Jamaica, Queens, oversaw the construction of a vast campus on a once-blighted site — steering the project through New York’s fiscal crisis and, in the process, helping to revitalize Jamaica and educate thousands of disadvantaged students — died on Monday in the Bronx. He was 88 and lived in Somers, N.Y.

His son, Robert, confirmed the death.

York, the youngest of the City University of New York’s 12 four-year colleges, was housed in temporary classrooms at Queensborough Community College in Bayside when Mr. Bassin was named president in 1971. Three years later, it was relocated to an abandoned Montgomery Ward department store on Jamaica Avenue.

By then plans had been drafted for a permanent campus on 49.8 acres bordering the Long Island Rail Road tracks between 158th and 165th Streets. The land, which had been taken over by the city, was a bleak expanse of weeds, parking lots, gas stations and a towering Brooklyn Union gas tank.

Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller initially vetoed the plan as part of his attempt to stem a statewide fiscal crisis. But in 1973, with Mr. Bassin playing a leading role in bringing together politicians, business owners and residents in support of the college’s mission to educate low-income and minority students, Mr. Rockefeller reversed himself.

Approximately $200 million in construction was completed on York’s campus during Mr. Bassin’s 20 years as president. Of the six buildings now occupying gently sloping green spaces, three were built by the time he retired in 1991: the Academic Core, which includes classrooms, the library and administrative offices; a science building; and another classroom building. They constitute more than 80 percent of the 931,607 square feet of space in the six buildings.

“Thanks to Milt, thousands of students have received a high-quality education at a senior college in the heart of southeast Queens,” Dolores Swirin, the college’s vice president for development, said in a statement.

There were 371 students enrolled at York when it opened in 1967; there are now more than 8,000. “The overwhelming majority are minority, coming from more than 120 countries,” Ms. Swirin said. “Almost all are the first in their families to go to college.”

Mr. Bassin’s impact was felt well beyond the campus, Carlisle Towery, president of the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, said in an interview. The college, he said, is “the heart of, the centerpiece for, Jamaica’s revitalization.”

In the 1960s and ’70s, as middle-class residents moved to the suburbs and downtown Jamaica faced stiff competition from regional malls, the neighborhood deteriorated.

Today about 1,000 privately owned duplex homes, financed by urban renewal programs, surround the campus.

“Pride of ownership means a lot,” Mr. Towery said, “and all that was stimulated by the certainty of York having its campus there.” In addition, he said, the shopping district is “viable and stabilized, very crowded.”

A tuition-free college education was one of Mr. Bassin’s tenets. He was one of 4 CUNY college presidents, out of 19, who opposed the system’s 1976 decision to charge tuition.

“Without free higher education, I would not have been able to go to college,” said Mr. Bassin, who graduated from City College in 1944 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

Milton Gerald Bassin was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 26, 1923, one of three children of Max and Miriam Bassin, who had emigrated from Russia. His father was a Yiddish poet who supported the family by selling insurance.

After graduating from City College, Mr. Bassin served in the Navy for two years. He then joined the faculty at New York City Community College in Brooklyn (now New York City Technical College), eventually rising to chairman of the mathematics department, dean of the college and, in 1966, president. He earned a master’s degree in engineering from Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1954.

Besides his son, Mr. Bassin is survived by his wife of 59 years, the former Bernice Blasenheim; his daughter, Lori; his brother, Eugene; and two grandchildren.

Connecting York College to the community was vital for Mr. Bassin. “We have made sure,” he said, “that the whole concept from accessible, attractive courtyards to low-profile, appealing buildings serves as notice to the people who live in Jamaica that we are with them and part of them.”

Originally published in The New York Times