In the fall of 1989, I was a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Buffalo. I loved the job, I loved the city, I loved my apartment in downtown Buffalo and I loved my colleagues. Had I sought a career in history, I would have followed the footsteps of Ellen DuBois, the wonderful historian of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who had recently departed from there for UCLA. Having decided in 1981 to get a doctorate in history, and then go to law school on my way to a career in academic administration, that trajectory was not in the cards. Just before I left Ithaca, where I was teaching, I met the man who would become my husband. We married in August of 1991. In December I made my last trek from Buffalo back to Ithaca, pregnant with my first boy, who is now 21.
That semester at UB is memorable for many reasons. Having come from the “wrong side of the tracks” in Rochester, a city very much divided by class, race and opportunity, Buffalo offered me a clean slate. Even in its economic decline, it was a vibrant place dotted with new restaurants and old beautiful homes. Professionally, I operated at a comfortable level. And I liked the students, probably because they reminded me of me at a younger age and stage of development.
In the fall semester of 1990, I taught the first part of American History. The preliminary in October consisted of multiple choice, multiple answer questions. Many students had done poorly. So I devoted a class to helping them to understand the format. In the course of my explanation, I said something to the effect of: “Life is tough. If you expect to take GREs or LSATs, you need to learn how to answer these types of questions.” Two months later, those words echoed back to me. A dozen evaluations packed together uniformly stated: “LIFE IS TOUGH, MITRANO SUCKS!” At first, I was offended, but then I reflected on the students’ experiences. Although UB had residential students from all over the state, many were from Buffalo, living at home, working 30-40 hours a week, and carrying a full time undergraduate load. They were not the stereotypical college student in that era, hanging out on campus, “finding themselves,” or belonging to a fraternity swilling beer on weekends. They were working hard, all the time, and they did not need a 30-something assistant professor telling them “life was tough.” They knew it already.
Yesterday as I watched a video of President Obama’s address at UB, that memory jumped out at me. Unlike then, the spotlight is now on that kind of student. Contemporary experience has grown direr with mountains of debt and uncertain job prospects. In fact, President Obama in his closing remarks alluded to the grit of its city and its people. He is aiming his higher education proposals at precisely that profile: scorecards for colleges and universities in a consumer-protection vein, competency credits, and support for distance education.
Today I have a rare opportunity to see President Obama at my graduate alma mater, Binghamton University. Curious choices his administration has made to announce higher education reform in my stomping grounds. Give me a minute, Gentile Readers, to take this all in. It’s an emotional journey down memory lane as intellectually I strive to figure out where we are going.