Corporate Contributions to Education
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld Speaks Out:
CUNY Trustee Shares his Views on Public Education
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld is not afraid to speak his mind. The CUNY trustee, who is credited with backing Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s sweeping reforms to raise academic standards at the nation’s largest urban public university during a seven-year term that just ended in June, spoke to Education Update about his views on public education and his own background as the product of New York City public schools.
One might think that Wiesenfeld, currently a principal at Bernstein Investment Research and Management and arbiter of multi-million dollar transactions, always had it easy. Not so. The child of a Polish Holocaust survivor, he was raised in the South Bronx and attended P.S. 28 on Anthony Avenue, followed by Wade Junior High School. “I was beaten constantly,” recalls Wiesenfeld matter-of-factly. “If I didn’t fight, I wouldn’t have survived.” Fortunately, he was admitted to Bronx High School of Science in 1975, which “literally saved my life.” It was at Queens College that Wiesenfeld developed an interest in political science and public administration, but after graduating, he met an FBI recruiter and took a test “on a lark,” working briefly as a counter-intelligence agent. “The FBI gave me an opportunity to start a life,” he reflects. What followed next was an amazing 21-year stint in New York’s political arena, during which he served under NYC Mayor Ed Koch, U.S. Senator Alfonse D’Amato, and NY Governor George Pataki.
In 1999, Governor Pataki appointed Wiesenfeld to the CUNY Board of Trustees, declaring, “As we begin the process of restoring CUNY to the great university system it once was, I know that Jeff Wiesenfeld will fight to improve accountability and standards at CUNY.” Pataki’s prophecy was indeed upheld, as Wiesenfeld dug in to uphold stringent admissions standards. “Before, the view was that everyone should get in regardless of their ability. It’s nonsensical to provide public money for degrees that have no value,” asserts Wiesenfeld. Wiesenfeld further supported the administration’s decision to end remediation in the senior colleges: “Today, we provide remediation, if required, at the community college level,” he adds. Wiesenfeld also supported Chancellor Goldstein’s establishment of the CUNY Honors College, a decision that is now widely lauded but was at the time a subject of considerable dissension. “The problem was the egalitarian movement,” reflects Wiesenfeld. “But everyone’s not the same. We just guarantee equal opportunity.”
In addition to his crusade for higher standards in the CUNY system, Wiesenfeld has served on the Board of the United Nations Development Corporation, trying unsuccessfully to persuade public officials to construct a new building for the aging UN complex. “The infrastructure is a disaster,” Wiesenfeld states in his usual no-holds-barred manner. “If it were private, it would be condemned…As long as the UN exists, it should exist in New York. It helps the city economically. Also, by consolidating the organizations in one location, we would be saving money on police, security, and other functions.”
One senses that Jeffrey Wiesenfeld will never run out of battles to wage or ethical causes to support. Among his mentors, he lists his father, who survived the Holocaust, and his grandparents, who lived in Israel until their nineties. “They made a whole new life for themselves. They were very happy that they owned a piece of the Jewish enterprise,” says Wiesenfeld philosophically. It’s not surprising that Wiesenfeld has devoted much of his life to helping his fellow New Yorkers own a piece of their enterprise as well. #