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An alumnus reflects on his experience at CCNY during the 1960's
Start: 05/22/07
End: 05/26/09

Robert SmithIt was with a great amount shock that I opened an envelope announcing my 40th College reunion. I have found that as I get older I reminisce about my college days more fondly. Now I can look back on those years more kindly. However, it still seems like I spent five years on Devil’s Island. As an incoming engineering freshman I went to a mass orientation of about 3,000 engineering wannabes. It was held in The Great Hall of the City College of New York. Einstein had once addressed a similar size group here. The person who spoke to us was only slightly less august. It was the Dean of Engineering. He told us to look at the person to the right of us and the person to the left of us. He said, “Only one of you will be here at graduation.” He meant it. At that time General Electric® had an ad campaign which had a slogan, “Progress is our most important product.” The Dean had a sign over the exit door from his office which said, “Dropouts are our most important product.” Less than one third of the entering engineering class would be graduated as engineers. Most of the dropouts from engineering did finish with a degree and went on to live perfectly normal lives. At the time the Dean made his statement about looking to the right of us and looking to the left, I was barely just past my 17th birthday and very literal minded. I looked at the two individuals on either side of me, both of whom had gone to the same pre-engineering high school, Brooklyn Tech, with me, and decided that of the three of us, I was the one who would make it. I immediately felt better about being an engineer. The Dean also told us that we would not be coddled at CCNY. He said the experience would make us better engineers and better people. He said that when we entered the real world, no one was going to coddle us. After our CCNY experience, it would seem easy. He was a man of his word.

The “experience” started with registration. One was let into a large hall at certain pre-set times, based upon one’s class status and the vagaries of the alphabet. You would run from table to table trying to get into what was left of openings in the various classes. If you were shut out, you had the option of enrolling in the evening division or trying to get into a class offered at the downtown business school. The engineering program was a five year program that led to a professional degree. A Bachelors of Engineering in a specific discipline. There were 145 credits required. Of these, all but 21 credits were in science, math, or engineering. Notice I have said credits and not credit hours. Lab courses, surveying camps and design sessions associated with engineering design courses were given one credit for every three hours of class. The rationale was that there was two hours of home study associated with each class hour of lecture. Labs, survey camps and design sessions were considered to require no additional outside time. Obviously, no one ever told them about the 12 hours it would take to get a lab report done for the next week. There was also a complicated series of pre-requisites and co-requisites. To simplify this, the catalogue contained a flow chart of courses that was our first introduction to critical path planning. To keep on track I had to take a freshman chemistry lab course at the downtown business school. This meant getting on a subway and going downtown to attend a three hour lab. Thank goodness it was only once a week. Because as soon as the class finished I had to make a mad dash for the subway and go back uptown to make my next class, an hour later. I was thin in those days. It was partly from running to classes and partly because my schedule never seemed to have time for me to eat lunch. The upper classmen took all the good class times. The lower classmen got the more undesirable times.

Classes during the traditional lunch times were never available to us, until our junior year. Over my undergraduate career, I found that I had to take some summer classes and some night classes. The ultimate insult came in my super senior year. When the civil engineers went to enroll for two courses which were co-requisites (they had to be taken in the same semester) we found that they were offered once and both classes were at the same time. To accommodate us, the two classes were offered at night at separate times. Half the super seniors took one class at night and the other half took the other one. We couldn’t believe anyone could be so stupid as to schedule corequisites at the same time. When we got to the first night class we found out the reason for this stupidity. The daytime program was a five year program. The same program at night took from 12 years out to 18 years. The longer stays were usually caused by the fact that there weren’t enough evening students to warrant the offering of a super senior course. They would have to wait until they were enough evening students backed up to justify offering the class. Sometimes they would intentionally schedule a conflict of two co-requisites during the day and force the day students to take them at night, thereby having a more than ample number to justify offering the classes at night. As an aside, at the end of the registration you had to get your course enrollments approved. There was a blackboard which had two arrows drawn on it. One was labeled “Engineers” and the other was labeled “Non-Engineers”. In the ten times that I passed that blackboard, I can’t remember having ever seen it not bearing the added annotation, “This is where we separate the men from the boys.”

This was part of the organized terror tactics. The individual professors were left to their own devices to torture us. One practice was handing back exams in descending numerical order. The professor would call the name of the individual who had received the highest grade on the exam. If it was a perfect score, that fact would be announced. This usually would be cause for a polite round of applause and the muttering of some comments under ones breath. The names of the others were called in a descending order. At some point in the reading the professor would stop and state that below this point all others failed and then keep going down the list. The last person to receive their exam back was referred to as “The Anchorman”. They usually also received a round of applause and comments were made in a somewhat louder voice. It was mortifying and humiliating for the individual. It could not happen today without law suits being filed. However, it did have a positive effect. One friend of mine, who was anchorman on one exam, walked down to the subway with me, right after exams were returned. He had tears in his eyes. He turned to me and said, “That is never going to happen to me again! Whatever it takes, I will never be Anchorman again. I will never fail another exam.” He turned it around after that point. I guess this public humiliation did accomplish some positive things.

Class standings were printed and publicly posted, by name, after each semester. No such niceties liking using student I.D. numbers. Instead of being on a traditional 4.0 system, we had a modified system. An “A” was 2.0 and an “F” was -2.0. A “C” average, required for graduation, was therefore a 0.00 in this system. When the class standings were posted, at some point the grade points on the list turned negative. This was a clear indication that these individuals would not receive a degree, unless they improved their average. Individual class grades were also posted at the end of the semester on the office door of the professor. Of course these were also listed by name. Besides an “F” there were two other failing grades. One was a “G” which could be assigned at any time by a professor who felt that it was mathematically impossible for the student to obtain a passing grade. Why let hem sit in a class and breathe everyone else’s air? The other, more lethal, was an “H”. This was assigned by a professor who felt the class was beyond the academic abilities of the student. It basically ended the student’s career in that program, if the course was needed for the degree. All the engineering courses were required. In Civil Engineering we would always get a number of transfers into the program from Electrical in their junior year. It was usually believed that they had received a career altering “H”. A few days after we had taken an exam in a Soils class, the professor asked one of the students if he could come in and speak to him in his office, at 12:45pm, that day, just before our three hour soils lab. As we walked out the individual turned to a couple of us and asked, “Why do you think he wants to speak to me?” Someone said, “Either you did so well on the exam that he wants to personally congratulate you, or you screwed up so bad that he is going to drop a “G” or an “H” on you.” The individual did not show up at the lab that day and the next time I saw him, about a year later. He was enrolled as a bio-major. He was hoping to teach in high school. Another tool the professors had was that they could send someone’s name to the Dean of Engineering and that individual would be required to take a remedial English class for no credit. The professor could do this based upon a lab submission, homework, or even based upon the quality of the English that was written in an exam book, under stress. Some of us also felt that some professors could refer you to the remedial class if they flat out didn’t like you.

The classes were graded without “curves”. Class after class would have grades posted with no “A’s” awarded. Sometimes there would be one “A” and then no “B’s”. One individual was so far ahead of the class that to award “B’s” would diminish the merit of the “A”. One professor, who had previously been a professor at West Point, told us that in life and in engineering there were no “curves”. As a result, out of some eight hundred graduates, there were usually less than ten who would receive a degree with honors. There were some Electricals who would receive a degree Summa or Magna cum Laude. We always said that, “You can’t spell geek without a double-e.” In the five years that I was in the Civil program I believe there were only two individuals who received their degrees “Cum Laude”. Another interesting fact was that in the five years I was in the school of engineering, I came in contact with nine years of student classes. When I was a freshman there were four years of classmen ahead of me. In my super senior year there were four years below me. In this nine year span of classes, there was only one woman. Believe me, it was not easy on her. I took a five week summer surveying course with her, in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. There were no toilet facilities nearby, and we used the woods. So did she. It would have made for a long eight hours otherwise, and the decision was that it would not be appropriate for her to leave the survey camp area to go back to the restrooms. It was said that if she wanted to compete in a “man’s world” she should get used to it. She was allowed to walk down to the restrooms during the lunch break, on her own time.

Freshman calculus was taken in two five credit courses the first two semesters. This was along with freshman physics and chemistry. No wonder there were so many dropouts. There was a second option for the calculus. Instead of taking it as two five credit courses, it could be taken as two three credit courses and one four credit course. However, each course was four hours. By taking them at a slower pace, one had to take 12 hours to receive the same ten credits. It also threw one off in the scheduling cycle. The placement was based upon a math exam one had to take during engineering orientation. I had a calculus professor who refused to teach the three course sequence. He likened it to having an English major take a remedial English course. He felt it was a lowering of the bar and he would not be part of it. He pointed out the fact that the majority of the engineers who made it to graduation took the freshman calculus in two semesters. Most of the dropouts took it in the three semester sequence. He thought we should make it easy and admit, to the School of Engineering, only those who scored high enough on the math exam to be placed in the two semester freshman calculus classes. He would go into a diatribe, from time to time, about the fact that CCNY produced more “embryonic” PhD’s (those graduates who would go on to obtain a doctorate degree) than any other college in the country. He would rattle off the names of the Alumni who had gone on to win Nobel prizes. He would ask, rhetorically, “Do you think any of them took freshman calculus in three semesters?”

I now look at the engineering programs of today. The total number of credits that are required today are far less than the number of technical credits we were required to take. The number of liberal arts credits included in this total is far greater than when I was an undergraduate. The resulting engineering programs contain less math, less science, and far less engineering. Classes are graded on curves. The drop out rate is far, far less than what it used to be. This explains why ASCE is calling for a bachelors degree + 30 additional credits for PE registration. Did what we went through as undergraduates make us better engineers and better people? At my 25th reunion I was pleased to see how many of my classmates had become Professors or owned or were principles of their firms. Those who had gone into government were almost all chief engineer or head of some impressive department or organization. A number had become quite successful in the business and industrial world. The general consensus was that we had done so well as a group because the bar had been set so high that only the best made it. We all agreed that after what we went through as undergraduates had toughened us up for the careers ahead. We just didn’t appreciate it at the time.
The Grove School of Engineering

Grove School of Engineering
Dr. Gilda Barabino, Dean

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