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Obituary: Former College President William M. Birenbaum

Dr. William M. Birenbaum, who served as president of the former Staten Island Community College and helped design and implement City University’s open-enrollment process to ensure access to higher education to all those who wished to pursue it, died Monday at his Brooklyn home. His age was 87. 

During his distinguished career as an educator and administrator, he also served as president and provost of Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he guided and expanded a small, well-established liberal-arts college into a university. 

Born in Macomb, Ill., he grew up in Waterloo, Iowa. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, stationed in Greenland, he returned to enroll in the University of Chicago’s Law School, under a provision known as the “Hutchins Plan,” which allowed admission to anyone who passed a rigorous examination process, even if they had no undergraduate degree. He received his doctor of laws degree in 1949. 

Dr. Birenbaum served as a faculty adviser and administrator at the University of Chicago until 1957, when he moved to Wayne State University in Detroit. Four years later he was appointed dean of the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. From 1964 to 1967 he served as provost and vice president of the Brooklyn Center of Long Island University. 

He left LIU to serve as an adviser to the late New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, assisting with educational planning for a project the senator was starting in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Shortly after Kennedy’s assassination, in 1968, Dr. Birenbaum was appointed president of Staten Island Community College (SICC) in Sunnyside. 

HELPING STUDENTS 

During his tenure, Dr. Birenbaum was committed to making higher education accessible to anyone who wanted to pursue a college degree, and helped design and implement CUNY’s open-enrollment policy. He expanded SICC’s programs in continuing and professional education, and created evening classes and weekend programs making it easier for women and working students to enroll and earn an associate’s degree. 

Dr. Birenbaum’s wife, the former Helen Bloch, said her husband was “a firm believer in inclusion, that everyone who wanted a college education should have access to higher education, regardless of their income or status.” 

“No matter what their background, he believed that everyone deserved a shot,” she said. “He loved Staten Island. He was a reformer and he wanted change, and he had an opportunity to effect change through Staten Island Community College.” 

In 1973, after then-President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger renewed diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, Dr. Birenbaum led the first American mission to China. He was selected, he explained, after persuading the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations “that Staten Island was a ‘people’s’ college.” 

During the city’s fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s, Staten Island Community College was merged with the former Richmond College in St. George, which in 1976 became the College of Staten Island. Dr. Birenbaum guided SICC through the process, but stepped down when the new institution was formally in place. 

TENURE AT ANTIOCH

He then took a position at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he served as president and professor for more than a decade. 

Under Dr. Birenbaum’s tenure, Antioch was reincorporated as Antioch University in 1978, and he led the institution through numerous financial and governance difficulties. When he left Antioch in the late 1980s, Dr. Birenbaum returned to New York, settling in Brooklyn, where he continued to teach and do consulting work, and serve as a member of many corporate, academic and non-profit boards. 

He was the author of two books and a number of articles on higher education issues. Recalling a recent conversation with her husband, Mrs. Birenbaum recounted that he was struck by the similarity of issues he dealt with to those in academia today. 

“He noted that the issues that were vibrant back 30 or 40 years ago are some of the same issues that confront educators today, including equal opportunities,” she said. 

IMPACT ON EDUCATION

“President Birenbaum’s impact on higher education in America cannot be overestimated,” said Dr. Tomas Morales, president of CSI. “He was a self-made man, dedicated and passionate, whose lifelong career in education transformed many lives and institutions. He will be greatly missed by many faculty, staff, and faculty emeriti at CSI.” 

Dr. Birenbaum also kept in touch with many faculty members with whom he served at SICC. 

Dr. Irene Deitch, an Advance Woman of Achievement who taught psychology at SICC and later at CSI, said the Birenbaums attended her birthday party in June at her Rosebank home. She described Dr. Birenbaum as her longtime mentor, and someone who had great influence on her social and intellectual development. 

“Bill Birenbaum was a remarkable man. He was a teacher, an administrator, a humanist, an intellectual. He was a real ‘Renaissance man’ and a leader in the American social revolution of the 1970s,” she said. 

Dr. Ann Merlino, also an Advance Woman of Achievement, was a dean at CSI and chaired the biology department at SICC under Dr. Birenbaum’s tutelage. 

“We may not have recognized at the time — when college campuses throughout the country in the late 1960s and the early 1970s were experiencing tumultuous change — that William Birenbaum’s vision of a new academic community on Staten Island was revolutionary. His idea of academia embraced new ideas that shook the status quo and a stagnated system to think beyond the traditional ways of teaching. Today’s students benefit from the legacy of William Birenbaum,” she said. 

Dr. Birenbaum enjoyed spending time with his children and grandchildren at the family’s summer home in Wellfleet, Mass. 

Surviving, along with Helen, his wife of 59 years, are his son, Charles; his daughter, Lauren Gates, and his grandchildren. 

He was preceded in death by his daughter, Susan Birenbaum, who died in 2008. 

A memorial service will be held at a future date. Arrangements, including cremation, are being handled by the Riverside Memorial Chapel, Manhattan.