A scholar-activist who was fiercely committed to racial, gender, and educational justice inspired Bryant University President Ross Gittell to make a difference by building a career in academia. His mother, Marilyn Jacobs Gittell, Ph.D., dedicated her entire 50-year career with the City University of New York to racial, gender, and educational justice.
Her research dealt with difficult policy issues, directly engaged the communities impacted by those issues, and challenged both scholars and policymakers to consider the community impacts of policy actions. She authored seminal works on citizen participation, and was founding editor of Urban Affairs Quarterly, (now known as Urban Affairs Review). Deeply committed to preparing young urban scholars of color and women, she taught them about the workings of democracy from the ground up, using the methods of rigorous field research.
Marilyn Gittell also believed passionately institutional reform. Described in her March 12, 2010 The New York Times obituary as “a political scientist and education reformer who in the 1960s was an outspoken advocate of decentralizing New York City’s public school system,” she joined with black resistance movements of the 1960s to move control of schools to the communities of black and Puerto Rican urban poor whom they served.
Higher education’s role in changing lives
After earning her doctorate from New York University, Marilyn Gittell taught and served in various capacities in the City University of New York (CUNY) system throughout an esteemed academic career. She began in 1960 as a professor in the Political Science Department at Queens College, where she founded the Queens College Urban Studies Department and the Institute for Community Studies. When she died at 78, she was a political science professor at the Graduate Center, where she had taught since 1978.
Marilyn Gittell was a lifelong advocate of the important role higher education could play in changing lives. “Our emphasis on the value of higher education in guaranteeing employment opportunities presents a problem in credibility, and the value of a strong liberal arts program is increasingly difficult to sell....The challenge we face is to demonstrate to the public that higher education is a vital element in a democratic society," she noted in a 1978 interview published in Change magazine.
Professor Gittell also served as the director of the Howard Samuels Center, then an arm of the graduate center that studied public policy. She previously worked as an assistant vice president and associate provost at Brooklyn College, where she was the highest-ranking woman, and at the time one of the highest-ranking women in higher education in New York City.
A career of notable achievements
Her celebrated career earned Marilyn Gittell numerous awards including:
- The 2001 Norton Long Career Achievement Award for "distinguished contributions to the study of urban politics over the course of a career through scholarly publication, the mentoring of students, and public service”
- The 1988 American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Roundtable award, presented for the best-written work in the area of intellectual freedom published during 1986 and 1987, for Choosing Equality: The Case for Democratic Schooling. “Its five authors,” the citation for the award noted, “in their examination of the roots of our 'crisis in education' in the public school system, have addressed this problem with intelligence, candor and honesty. Were their recommendations acted upon, our public schools and, ultimately, our society would be the beneficiaries.”
- Being named one of Change magazine’s 100 Young Leaders of the Academy in the United States in 1978.
Each year, the Urban Affairs Association, the international professional organization for urban scholars, researchers, and public services professionals, presents the Marilyn J. Gittell Activist Scholar Award, which highlights the importance of field-based urban scholarship and promotes the dissemination of work by activist urban scholars. The award honors the contributions of a scholar whose research record shows a direct relationship between activism, scholarship and engagement with community.
A digital archive honoring Marilyn Gittell’s contributions to the public school reform and community control movements of the 1960s, and highlighting her scholarship regarding the people, politics, and possibilities of educational justice in New York City is maintained by CUNY.