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3,600 depart Queens College in 77th graduation


As she went from saying you can...

By Chris Fuchs

It was a good 10 minutes into her remarks before Deborah Wolfe, the first black professor at Queens College, talked about being a woman in a man’s world and, particularly, a black woman in a white man’s world.


As she went from saying you can never be too old to learn, to discussing the role of women and race in society, she looked at the collection of faculty and elected officials, gathered for the college’s 77th commencement, sitting on stage behind. Most of them were white. She paused, seeming to deliberate about whether or not she should say it. She did.

“I know that as a black woman in a white man’s world, you can stand and look at anyone in the eye and know when you know,” Wolfe said, receiving a standing ovation when she finished speaking.

More than 3,600 undergraduate students and master’s candidates took part in commencement exercises at Queens College in Flushing June 6 on the grassy Campus Quad. The day before, Herman Badillo, who did not attend even though he was on the program, resigned as chairman of the CUNY board of trustees and, later in the week, announced his candidacy for mayor. The Queens College faculty have complained that under his tenure their pay was below prevailing levels at other universities.

Saul Cohen, a former Queens College president and now a regent of the State University of New York, spoke not more than two minutes before bluntly saying in closing that CUNY needs a “better budget.”

Dr. Eileen Moran, an associate professor of sociology, one of a dozen faculty members handing out literature and stickers before graduation, said paltry pay has forced professors to seek out jobs at other universities. She said CUNY lost nearly $400 million in state aid during the 1990s and that in the last 25 years CUNY half of its full-time faculty.

The elected officials who attended, including Council speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria) and City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, both Democrats running for mayor, mostly skirted political issues such as budget cuts in the CUNY system. The comptroller, a member of the Class of 1962 and a former faculty member, instead told the students that America is a society that thrives on competition and that if they do not compete, they will ultimately be tossed aside.

During the two-hour commencement, two professors received honorary degrees: Barry Commoner, an environmentalist who began teaching at Queens College in 1941; and Wolfe, an educator who was hired in 1951.

Commoner, who received a doctor of science degree, told the graduates that one thing he had learned as an educator was that you learn from your students. One of them, he recalled, asked so many questions that he realized how much he did not know. That student was Seymour Fogel, a geneticist who later became the department chairman at the University of California at Berkeley.

“He was a student at Queens College who learned what he had to do to help the world,” he said.

Wolfe, a former chairwoman of the New Jersey Board of Education, who received a doctor of humane letters, expanded on Commoner’s remarks. “I was working with students who knew how to raise questions,” she said. “That is the way you learn — by asking questions.” She went on to say that she’ll keep learning until the day she dies, and that as long as you continue to learn, you never get old.

But Wolfe’s transition from education into the relationship between education and race in America seemed to inspire many of the graduates, especially those who received master’s degrees in education. Diversity, she said, is the strongest fabric of the American education system, but one that is oftentimes invisible.

“She gave me stability to move on as a black woman,” said Vida Williams, 45, a master’s in education candidate who works as a guidance counselor in Brooklyn. Three years ago, Jackie Dominguez, a master’s candidate in education who lives in Ridgewood, said she worked as a marketer. She changed careers and became a second-grade teacher in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and soon enrolled in Queens College.

“It was energetic,” Dominguez, 34, said of Wolfe’s remarks. “She is amazing. The only thing is I wish I had half of energy.”

Reach reporter Chris Fuchs by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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