President Kurt Richard Schmeller

1966 - 1999

President Dumont F. Kenny

On December 1st, 1966, President Kenny resigned to become the first president of the newly chartered York College. The following August, twenty-nine year old Dr. Kurt Richard Schmeller, former assistant to the president and history professor at Wisconsin State University, was named the third President of Queensborough. Formally inaugurated in November, over 1000 people attended the ceremonies including the heads of nineteen colleges, representatives of 45 learned societies, and delegates from 125 colleges. Following his installation, the Symphony of the New World performed and the College presented the world premiere of “Abraham”, a hand-painted film produced by the late Andre Girard, the well-known religious artist, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Israel. Girard, who had died a couple of months earlier, had been a professor of art at Queensborough.

In September of 1967, the College reached out to the community through a Performing Arts Series intended “to bring a higher level of live entertainment that is affordable to people living in the community from all walks of life.” Folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie led off the program. The "Collegium Musicum," open to both students and faculty, formed to draw upon the musical talent at the college, and bring together instrumental and vocal groups to perform at concerts on and off campus. College performing arts organizations on campus were composed of students, faculty and members of the community; groups included the Queensborough Symphonic Band, Chorus, Orchestra, Stage Band, Jazz Ensemble, and Drama Society. The College maintained a gallery on the fourth floor of its administration building, and the Art Department managed exhibits of student works, one-man shows of faculty works, and the work of artists from outside the College. In his first year, Dr. Schmeller dedicated three new buildings and presided over an expanding college now enrolling over 8500 students, including some 3500 full-time day students and 5000 evening and general studies students. The new Library contained approximately 25,000 volumes and over 400 subscriptions to periodicals and newspapers. With space for over 1000 students, the Library was located in the Basement, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd floors of the Library-Administration Building.

In succeeding years opportunities for students continued to expand rapidly. The inaugural nursing class was enrolled and took advantage of a two-year program to prepare students to take licensing examinations for practice as Registered Nurses. Queensborough offered its first course in Education required by future teachers entitled “Contemporary Education." The Science Department divided into two separate departments: Biological Science and Physical Science. The Modern Languages Department evolved into the department of Classical and Modern Languages, and added new courses in Italian, French, German, and Spanish Literature. The Department of Electrical Technology became just the thirtieth in the country to have its curriculum receive professional accreditation from the Engineers' Council for Professional Development. The History Department split off from the Social Sciences Department that continued to offer courses in Economics, Philosophy, Government, and Psychology. The Art Department introduced courses in Advertising, Design and Layout, and Introduction to Painting and Drawing. The Speech Department achieved autonomy and offered courses in Acting and Introduction to Theater. In an innovative experiment, Queensborough opened an educational extension center to assist students interested in aviation and transportation-related areas of study. Classes were held in Pan American Cargo Building #67 at JFK International Airport.

Dr. Schmeller recognized that Queensborough would need to adapt to changing times while at the same time maintaining its traditionally high standards. He called for “an opportunity for students to attend college who would not, under ordinary admission standards, be eligible for enrollment.” In response, the College Discovery Program initiated a vigorous effort to offer a helping hand through intensive counseling, additional scholastic help, remedial courses, tutoring and other forms of assistance.

Dr. Schmeller continued to preside over growth and change at Queensborough that roughly paralleled the social “revolution” sweeping the nation in the late sixties. The campus dress code certainly loosened up, and some students started to don tie-dye shirts and bell-bottoms. As Queens neighborhoods grew in population and became more multi-ethnic, so did the borough’s community college. In his inaugural address President Schmeller took a hard line against student radicalism and criticized militant factions that show contempt for democratic government and “callous disregard for general welfare.” Albert H. Bowker, chancellor of the City University of New York, made clear he viewed the youthful Schmeller as an administrator who could “bridge the generation gap which today, more than at any previous time in our history, appears to be at the root of many of our problems.”

Student editors of the Aurora wrote to Senator Robert F. Kennedy asking what advice he could give to graduates. On November 28, 1967, he responded with a personal letter. He told the students he had no formula for early accomplishments because “success depends upon the best use of an individual’s own talents and potential.” But as his letter continued, the Senator stressed he was unabashedly optimistic about the future of America’s youth: “In 1960, people spoke of youth as the ‘silent generation,’ the uncommitted. No one would say that now. As a generation equipped with education and training and resources unparalleled in history, you have the opportunity to shape a world in which we all can be proud.”

Dr. Schmeller invited Senator Kennedy to speak on campus and he accepted. As part of his tour of Queens on January 10, 1968, Kennedy spoke to a packed gymnasium on a wide variety of topics including the increasing influence of Red China in Asia and the Soviet Union in the Middle East. There were also lighthearted moments. When asked if he favored the lowering of the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, Kennedy replied that he did and in fact was “in favor of lowering it to about seven.” When a questioner intimated that the United States should adopt the same policies in Cuba as in Indo-China, the Senator deadpanned, “I’m not in favor of having wars in the Caribbean at the moment.”

Most of the students asked questions about the fighting in Vietnam. Paradoxically, it seemed a majority in the audience favored an escalation of the war and a continuation of student draft deferments. Kennedy called them on it. He told the group, “I’m against student deferments. It’s a conflict and everyone should be treated equally. If we are only interested in areas which personally concern our specific needs, we are not going to help the nation. There are other ways than protest, drugs, and apathy to handle life. Now there is the opportunity to bring out about the changes you would like to see.” Overall, Queensborough’s students responded warmly to Senator Kennedy, but when he stated his opposition to student deferments he was roundly booed.

About three months later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while lending support to a sanitation workers' strike. At a campus memorial service some 500 students and faculty, both African American and white, marched solemnly around the campus from the flagpole, at half-mast, to the patio of the Science Building. President Schmeller suspended classes at noon on Friday to free students and teachers to attend the ceremony. He read from King’s hopeful “Letters From a Birmingham Jail” and asked that all people work together to achieve King’s goals. David Gibson, a student and president of Afram, a predominantly African American organization at Queensborough, declared that Dr. King had been “the last link to non-violence” in the troubled racial situation in America and he implored all Americans to carry on Dr. King’s dream.

The spring semester at Queensborough was coming to an end when, on June 5, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after winning the California Democratic Primary. As the nation mourned, over the summer a conversation spread throughout the entire College community about whether the new gymnasium could be named in his honor. A consensus quickly emerged in favor of the idea.

Student unrest spread like wildfire across college campuses during the 1968-69 academic year. Sometimes it was about the Vietnam War, sometimes it was about race relations, sometimes people were just plain angry but not even sure why; overall it was the sixties, a decade when many Americans shouted at the top of their lungs that it was okay to be different, okay to change the status quo, okay to protest in the face of “the authorities.” Queensborough was not spared, and events quickly spiraled out of control.

It is hard to believe but in April and May of 1969, President Schmeller, claiming budgetary restraints, blocked the reappointment of an English professor, Dr. Ronald Silberman, an avowed Marxist… critics, including the virtually the entire English Department, claimed Dr. Schmeller’s actions were politically motivated… hundreds of students and a few faculty members on several occasions staged “sit-ins” in the Administration building… campus security guards were punched and administrative offices trashed… President Schmeller called the police on at least three occasions and officers responded in large numbers, in one instance over 200… two other professors and the director of student activities were fired for participating in the protests… a court order was served enjoining the protesters from any further actions, and promptly ignored… contempt of court citations were served against several students and faculty… a large number of faculty (though not a quorum) voted to denounce President Schmeller’s actions and support the demonstrators and Professor Silberman… the American Association of University Professors and the United Federation of College Teachers passed resolutions condemning President Schmeller’s actions… some faculty charged President Schmeller was trying to lock them out of their meeting rooms… plainclothesmen entered a private home and arrested several students and faculty… President Schmeller announced that a grand jury was investigating a “conspiracy” by “outsiders” behind the Queensborough demonstrations… under the front page headline “University Crisis in Brief,” the New York Times summarized disruptions at five colleges: Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Queensborough.   

President Schmeller took a hard line and so did the demonstrators, and from the vantage point of history it is clear the clash was inevitable.  A majority of students and faculty backed neither President Schmeller nor the demonstrators, but no one could avoid observing what was going on and being buffeted by the winds.  Who won?  President Schmeller continued at the helm of Queensborough for another thirty years.  The College changed forever.  Long gone were the days when a student could be removed from class for wearing sneakers.

On May 18, 1969, Queensborough held ceremonies to dedicate its new gymnasium in the name of Robert F. Kennedy.  Over 200 parents and members of the local Bayside community attended as did about thirty protesting students and faculty symbolically clad in striped prison shirts.  President Schmeller spoke, ignored the demonstrators, and said that though “students have the greatest opportunity to make a difference… the only way to initiate and implement change is through constitutional means; the alternative is anarchy.”  He received a standing ovation when he closed his remarks.  Theodore Sorensen, former special counsel to the late senator’s brother, also spoke and criticized all sides saying, “violence is inexcusable on the part of students who say their demands are non-negotiable; but violence is predictable when an administrator refuses to negotiate.”  He closed his remarks by pleading for “love and wisdom and compassion for one another” and donated his fee the College was paying him for the speech to a legal defense fund for those who had been arrested after the administration called in the police to halt the sit-ins. 

A small item in the New York Times on June 18, 1969 noted that the “eighth annual commencement exercises at Queensborough Community College in Bayside – which was beset by disruptions earlier in the spring – were held without incident.”  The campus had been “quiet.”  On that day more than 800 graduates – proud and persevering – received their degrees.

Despite the turbulence of the late sixties, not only did Queensborough continue to survive, it thrived.  Through construction and mud, demonstrations and even a transit strike, the work of the College went on as students continued to strive for and achieve their goals.  By the end of the decade enrollment had reached over 4000 for day students and 5000 for evening students, and there were 400 full-time and 300 part-time faculty. 

Robert Guillot, remembered to the present day around campus as the “Rocket Man,” was a proud sixties graduate, and the College remains proud of him.  He grew up in Queens Village, earned his Associate in Science degree in Chemistry at Queensborough, and then went on to The City College of New York.  He became a NASA physicist working on the Apollo Moon Landings.  Decades later Guillot still remembers his alma mater fondly saying, "Queensborough taught me intellectual courage, a faith in my abilities…  Just as the Apollo Moon Landing instilled a permanent awareness of our country's awesome potential, so did Queensborough change my life because there I was made to feel that I could learn anything... and do anything."  

 

 

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