FROM THE TIME it was organized in the late 1840s as the Free Academy, New York City's first free public high school, the City College of New York had a unique mission. It offered a free education of the highest order to the city's brightest youth, without regard to their race, creed or national origin. At a time when many colleges were too expensive or too exclusive for the children of the poor and the workers, City College welcomed all who had the ability to meet its demanding standards. Over the years, City College produced a remarkable number of the nation's leading scientists, artists, journalists, scholars and Nobel Prize recipients. Virtually all were children of the poor, which is why City College became known as the "proletarian Harvard."

This illustrious tradition was disrupted in 1970 when the city's Board of Higher Education, yielding to the demands of militant students, introduced "open admissions," which guaranteed every New York City high school graduate entry to one of the City University's 17 colleges. Unfortunately, many high school graduates had diplomas but lacked the essential skills of reading and writing. Almost overnight, City College was transformed from the academic star of the City University to an overcrowded institution in which the majority of students was enrolled in remedial programs. The primary object of "open admissions" was to increase the number of black and Puerto Rican college students. At City College, largely because of its location in Harlem, the proportion of white students dropped from 77 percent in 1969 to 35 percent in 1975.

In early 1978, Theodore Gross, dean of humanities at City College, published an article in Saturday Review , which describied how the new policy had changed the "proletarian Harvard." Though he understood the political and social forces behind "open admissions," he was frank about the massive educational problems that had been thrust upon an unprepared, and in many cases unwilling, faculty. Despite the students' often keen motivation, many needed "a vast amount of attention" in learning to read and write English; few were prepared for college-level studies. The faculty, heavy with accomplished research scholars, did not know how to teach students reading and writing.

In his article, Gross noted the deleterious consequences of this mismatch of student needs and faculty talents. First, the curricula became politicized as timid administrators capitulated to demands for new ethnic departments; Gross called the creation of these departments "hasty, ill-conceived, an intellectual disgrace" and charged them with encouraging separatism and racial polarixation. Second, the faculty became demoralized; educated to teach college students but compelled to teach remedial courses, many feared that they no longer "had a profession." Third, the academically gifted students who had traditionally attended City College fled elsewhere to the state universities, the suburbs or private colleges. Fourth, the new students preferred vocationally oriented courses, which lowered enrollment in the humanities and caused professors to devise ever more exotic electives in their desperate search for students (a loss of enrollment meant a loss in faculty jobs).

The new students needed structure, attention, academic discipline, an involved faculty and a supportive environment. Instead, Gross noted, they entered college at a time when American education generally had abolished requirements, abandoned sequential curricula, lowered standards, inflated grades, permitted the proliferation of electives in the humanities, and tolerated almost any student's performance in order to please students and hold onto enrollment.

When Gross' article appeared, his troubles started. He had titled his essay "Open Admissions: A confessional Meditation," but saturday Review retitled it "How to Kill a College: The Private Papers of a Campus Dean." In the highly politicized atmosphere of City College, the article plunged Gross into controversy. Privately some colleagues thanked him for daring to tell the truth, but publicly he was attacked as a racist and a reactionary. Militant students harangued Gross, not only because of the article, which they had not read, but because of the possibility that the college might require students to take a test to demonstrate 9th-grade competency in writing and mathematics before entering their junior year in college. After several weeks of the storm's center, Gross was asked by the college president to take a paid sabbatical. Gross left City College and is today provost of Pennsylvania State University.

Academic Turmoil has three distinct sections: The original article that appeared in Saturday Review ; an account of Gross' experiences after the article appeared, and his proposals for making "open admissions" work and for reviving literacy and the humanities for all students. He has many excellent suggestions for improving educational quality at all levels, such as developing sequential curricula in writing and literature, collaboration among teachers in elementary, secondary and collegiate institutions and establishing summer learning programs. He correctly calls for a national effort to counteract the debasement of language and learning that has become common-place in and out of our schools.

In reflecting on his own experience, Gross fails to understand the corrosive power of what George Orwell called "orthodoxy-sniffing." Orwell described the 1930s as "a time of labels, slogans, and evasions," a time when people submitted to voluntary cencorship rather than venture an unfashionable opinion. At City College, orthodoxy-sniffing was pervasive. To defend educational standards or to criticize student hooliganism was to risk being labeled a bigot or reactionary. Gross didn't mean to offend the orthodoxy-sniffers, and sad to say, he spends many pages of the book softening, shading and undercutting his original critique, making the proper bows to the pieties of the past decade.

There is no question that "open admissions" is now a permanent fixture in American higher education. Most colleges accept everyone who applies for admission. With declining enrollments, the competition for students is likely to grow sharper and the number of colleges with admission requirements will grow smaller. The principles of "lifelong learning" and of giving people a fresh start are thoroughly American. "Open admissions" is not threatened. What is in doubt is the future of excellence. The precipitous transformation of the City College of New York, no longer the "proletarian Harvard," poses the question of whether we can continue to compromise the ideal of educational excellence without damaging our society, our economy, and perhaps, even our ability to govern ourselves.