Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Sondra Perl

Committee Members

Rebecca Mlynarczyk

George Otte

Subject Categories

Rhetoric and Composition


civil rights, basic writing, SEEK, Shaughnessy, CUNY, assessment


A great struggle for racial justice was fought at City College and CUNY from 1964 to 1978. In this archival history, supplemented with thirteen oral histories of students and teachers, and grounded in the larger context of racial segregation and exclusion within American public education and American higher education through 1970, I argue that this larger struggle for justice should be seen as two distinct but intertwined struggles that had very different results. Throughout this history, I focus on individual teachers and students who either played key roles or whose experiences illustrate aspects of the larger issues. Some of their voices are also included directly through their appended oral histories, including transcripts of eight video oral histories that are up on youtube.

The first struggle was over unjust admissions standards that excluded almost all black and brown students. Within the fourteen years from 1964 to 1978, CUNY’s student body was fully integrated. The key to the successful racial integration of the four-year colleges was the 1965 launch and the 1966 to 1969 expansion of the City College Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK) desegregation and supportive teaching program. SEEK, both in its practice and its theoretical rationale, directly challenged CUNY’s admissions criteria as biased and invalid. In SEEK, students demonstrated their true college potential by attempting actual college coursework within a supportive environment that ameliorated the pain and damage of the wounds they carried, respected and recognized them as individuals, believed in their abilities, built their strengths, and always expected them to succeed. Close to 40% of the first three City College SEEK classes graduated by 1972, although none held the normally required admissions credentials.

The second struggle for racial justice at CUNY was over instructional and assessment standards. This struggle was harder for many to see because it turned on many large and small questions of administrative structures, institutional expectations, funding, teaching and assessments. But underneath those surface issues, the same old assumptions of superiority and inferiority guided this struggle too. A central site of this struggle was within writing instruction at City College as the SEEK program expanded from 1965 to 1969. Similar struggles over writing instruction and assessment developed across CUNY after 1970 when it began its Open Admissions program.

Gradually, one City College SEEK writing teacher positioned herself at the heart of this pedagogical struggle for justice. Mina Shaughnessy joined City College SEEK in its third year and worked for several years as a caring and supportive teacher, but also a deeply conservative administrator. By 1975, she was a CUNY Dean in charge of both writing instruction and assessment, as well as the informal leader of CUNY’s writing administrators and teachers. Yet even as she urged her fellow writing teachers to “Dive In” and support students rather than guard the towers, Shaughnessy quietly promoted the implementation of new gateway writing tests across CUNY. In the end, Shaughnessy played a pivotal role in the conception, development, design, promotion, validation, and promulgation of CUNY’s massive, high-stakes testing system, a system that in remain in place 38 years after her death and has now inflicted devastating harm on close to a million incoming CUNY students.