For many students in both the CUNY Macaulay Honors College and the Lehman Scholars Program, one of the first things they notice on entering the office of the program director, Professor Gary Schwartz, is the chairs. A discern- ing eye might pick out the Knoll by Bertoia or the Charles Eames. They share the room with other chairs from Ikea and a dubious one from a colleague who “left the College under strange circumstances.” The faded spines of books on low shelves bear titles in Greek and Latin.
“I remember all these chairs, all these different shapes, which tell whole tales about him,” says Kunchok Dolma.
“I like the one that he sits in that tilts, but I never tried it, just out of respect,” said Samsiya Ona.
For others, the experience was aural. Dr. Lewis Gordon recalls that “Gary opened his door, and I heard Parker’s ‘Bird at the Roost’.”
The first thing Macaulay students and alumni have learned—along with a generation of Lehman Scholars—is to leave the formalities at the door. It’s Gary, not Professor Schwartz. Perhaps it has something to do with the straight-laced period he grew up in and rebelled against. “Gary has an unconventional way of thinking,” says Alice Michelle Augustine. “He’s not invested in platitudes.”
Born in Atlanta, Professor Schwartz grew up in Maplewood, N.J., the son of a professor of medicine. “The one thing he could do is teach you something,” Professor Schwartz recalls. “And he could do it in a very direct and painless way, a reflection of his practice.” In Maplewood he attended Columbia High, which had no affiliation with the university where he would eventually acquire his Ph.D. The high school, he notes proudly, was “public, absolutely, public.” On his father’s side, however, it was ivy, absolute ivy: Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia. Of his father’s ten siblings, all were high-striving professionals.
An uncle on his mother’s side helped break through those paternal strictures by introducing him to jazz. The first notes he remembers are from “Lover Man,” with singer Sarah Vaughan and Charlie Parker on sax. Through jazz, he had a revelation. “Being crazy is because someone tells you there’s only one way to do something, which is the essence of post World War II America,” he said.
At fifteen, a friend’s father took the two teenagers to Birdland, back when it was still on Seventh Avenue. “We were so young we had to drink Shirley Temples,” he remembers with a laugh. Profes- sor Schwartz now plays the saxophone, and Dr. Gordon, who has jammed with him, understands the appeal for the classics scholar. “Jazz reminds you of the different levels of communication. It asks you to find your own voice, you’ve got to figure things out,” he said.
By 1964, he had met his future wife, Barbara Siegel. Four years later, campuses all over the country erupted in protests. “It was because the students were reading the books they were supposed to read,” he says. In 1969, he began teaching at Lehman, the year after it split from Hunter College.
CUNY in the 1970s and 80s was a university in turmoil, with bud- get cuts, open admissions, and student demonstrations. But it was the open admissions policy that changed the demographic face of Lehman, as well as its intellectual makeup. Looking back, Profes- sor Schwartz says that many of the older professors were taken by surprise, and talented students were in danger of being lost in the shuffle of bringing others up to speed. It was in this atmosphere that he became director of the Lehman Scholars Program (LSP).
In 1983, Dr. Gordon, now the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Philosophy at Temple University, was at the center of it all. Things were quite different at Lehman, he says, before LSP. “We were used to the idea that we had nothing to offer; we were just there to learn.” With LSP, students were invited into the conversation. “What I remember from that period were the discussions; they would continue after the classroom.”
When Dr. Gordon graduated, he described the experience to Professor Schwartz, who in turn made it policy. “That became what I tell the faculty. No lecturing; you can’t do it in here. Get the people talking,” Professor Schwartz says. LSP students were released from general course requirements to pursue their own field of inter-
est. “It turned into a rebirth for him, where before he was feeling
frustrated with his teaching,” says his wife. “This was a way for him to create an environment and do the teaching he wanted to do, and encourage the people to create. He ended up loving his job.”
Professor Schwartz specifically credits a fertile atmosphere that “has been very rich under [President] Ricardo Fernández.” In 2002, the atmosphere became golden when the Macaulay Honors College joined LSP. Professor Schwartz participated in many of the early discussions that formed the new program.
“Chancellor Goldstein wanted to change the conversation about CUNY,” he said. There was some concern among faculty that Macaulay might swallow up campus honors programs, but the Chancellor saw the Honors College as an overlay upon them. With LSP’s free-wheeling conversations already in high gear, the voices at the table just got more diverse.
Both programs stress the liberal arts. Professor Schwartz believes that, no matter your major, the liberal arts are for life. “It’s really a question of developing that inner voice and that way of accessing, experiencing, and expressing it by drawing, painting, blowing on a saxophone or a bassoon, or playing a set of marimba.”
Of course, including the liberal arts doesn’t mean abandoning other dreams. Just ask Samsiya Ona. “He was the first person to con- vince me to go back to premed and not nursing,” says Ona, a native of Togo, currently at Harvard Medical School. “I wanted to become a doctor at first, but because of the language barrier everyone
was telling me to become a nurse, because it’s safe.” Professor Schwartz has a way of convincing students they can do it all, and maybe a little more.
Dolma remembers a similar anecdote. Earlier this year, she won the highly coveted Clarendon Fund Scholarship to attend the University of Oxford for a master’s degree in international relations. “I was telling him that, after Oxford, I was thinking of either doing my doctorate or going to law school, and he said, ‘Why not do both’?”
Augustine faced challenges that seemed beyond her control, but Professor Schwartz convinced her otherwise. “At my final Watson Fellowship interview, I had an illness, a fire, and a burglary,” she recalls. “I had just come back from Ghana. My application for fel- lowships and everything on my computer was gone. And Gary was, like, you can do it—just like that.” Augustine went on to graduate from Loyola University School of Law in New Orleans.
Today, many LSP and Macaulay students arrive as one unit, taking freshman classes together, instead of waiting until junior year to meet up in seminars, as was often the case. LSP and MHC students now have access to honors sections early on. Professor Schwartz believes this diverse mix is the key to growth. He says that “like transnationalism—that concept that anybody who spends just three days in another country is still changed—there’s an inter- play between the two programs, a homogeneity to the experience. It’s really a very attractive quilt we’ve been able to put together.”