By Rich Bockmann
Milton Bassin, the longtime president of York College who is credited with nurturing the institution during its seminal years and shepherding it through difficult financial times, died of natural causes last week in the Bronx at the age of 88.
Bassin was himself a product of the City University of New York system, and in his passing his colleagues hailed him as a champion of the economically disadvantaged. He was York’s longest-serving president, having headed the college from 1971 until his retirement in 1991.
The son of Russian immigrants, Bassin was born in 1923 to a Brooklyn home of modest means. After attending New Utrecht High School, he took advantage of the city’s tuition-free opportunities to earn his bachelor’s degree in mathematical engineering from City College in 1944, followed by a master’s degree from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn — now the Polytechnic Institute of New York University — in 1954.
After serving in the U.S. Navy, Bassin returned to CUNY, where he began his higher education career as an instructor in mechanical technology at New York City Community College — now the New York City Technical College. He became chairman of the mathematics department and climbed the ladder to become dean of the college in 1966.
When Bassin assumed the presidency of York College in 1971, it was housed inside temporary classrooms on the Queensborough Community College campus in Bayside, where it remained for three years until moving to downtown Jamaica on the cusp of a financial crisis that threatened to shutter the young institution.
Soon after York planted its roots inside the former home of the Montgomery Ward department store on Jamaica Avenue, the city and state were hit with shrinking budgets in 1976-77 and there was much pressure to eliminate the college with no real campus of its own.
Bassin rallied political, business, religious and community leaders to support the young college, and in 1978 the CUNY board of trustees gave York the mandate to develop business and health sciences career programs.
“Without Milt Bassin, the York College campus in Jamaica would never have been built,” said Dolores Swirin, vice president for institutional advancement at York. “Thanks to Milt, thousands of students have received a high-quality education at a senior college in the heart of southeast Queens. Milt won the deep respect of faculty, staff, students and the community for his work. He will be deeply missed by all of us at York.”
Under Bassin’s 20-year leadership, York completed approximately $200 million in construction, including classrooms, a science building, administrative offices and the college’s library.
York went on to graduate thousands of students, including the late Rev. Ross Johnson, of the St. Albans Congregational Church, former City Councilman Archie Spigner and the late Borough President Donald Manes.
Bassin is survived by his wife Bernice, his son Robert, his daughter Lori, his brother Eugene and two grandchildren.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4574.