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Type Miscast: An Elmhurst Doctor’s Type 2 Diabetes Misdiagnosis Results in the Death of a Six-Year-Old Girl

The little girl could barely breathe. She lay on the hospital bed, her chest rising with each forced inhalation. Irma Nicanor held her only child’s hand. The six-year-old’s eyes were closed, but Irma felt her tiny fingers squeezing.

“Stay strong, Claudialee,” she told her in Spanish.

Irma was dazed by how everything had gone so bad so quickly. It was early on a January evening in 2010. They’d checked into New York Hospital in Flushing that afternoon. Claudialee was nauseated and had a tummy ache. Irma figured she’d caught a stomach virus from a boy in their apartment building. She now knew that it was more than that.

Two days before, Cladialee was running around the house, climbing over couches and crawling under tables. She seemed as healthy as she’d ever been. Yes, she was overweight, and her blood sugar was slightly high, but Irma was seeing to it that her daughter would get fit.

A bubbly girl with a loud laugh, full cheeks, and a thick mop of dark brown hair, Claudialee had plenty of energy for that mission. The girl took ballet and karate lessons. She ran around the park with her dad and rode bikes with her cousin. During snack time at P.S. 32, she pulled out sandwich bags filled with celery and carrots and sliced fruit. Her first-grade teacher would eat with Claudialee so that she wouldn’t feel bad about not having sweets like the other kids.

Irma was always conscious about her daughter’s health. Over the past three months alone, she’d taken Claudialee to six medical appointments: three times to her pediatrician, Dr. Thelma Cabatic, for flu shots and checkups; and three times to her endocrinologist, Dr. Arlene Mercado, to deal with her blood sugar. At each visit, Mercado would tell Irma that her girl was fine, in need of nothing more than diet and exercise.

Yet two weeks after her last checkup, here was Claudialee struggling for air, half-conscious in an emergency room. “Patient has slight movement of all four extremities spontaneously but not on command,” the hospital notes read. “Mumbles occasionally.”

The scene was overwhelming for a mother. Nurses scurrying around. Chemicals with smells much stronger than the cleaning supplies Irma used in her job as a housekeeper. Intravenous tubes attached to Claudialee’s arms, alternately streaming potassium salts, water, and glucose. The girl’s blood sugar had risen to 525 milligrams per deciliter—more than five times the normal level.

How could this happen? Irma kept asking herself.

Claudialee’s lungs struggled as the night wore on. Nurses strapped an oxygen mask to her face. It wasn’t enough. They decided to push a tube down the child’s throat so a ventilator could help her breathe. But Claudialee wasn’t having it. Even half-conscious, she was still a flare of vigor. Her arms flailed and her legs kicked. The nurses didn’t expect such strength. They retreated and injected her with a sedative. Then they inserted the tube. Claudialee was now unconscious and dependent on a machine to supply her with oxygen.

Irma sat in the waiting room, praying. She called her sister Marta. It was about 4 a.m., but Marta rushed to the hospital. She got lost in the hallways, missed the waiting room, and ended up at Claudialee’s bedside. The two were alone, the only sounds coming from the robotic hums and beeps of intensive care.

“It hurts,” Marta thought she heard the girl whisper.

“Where does it hurt?”

There came no reply.

St. James Avenue was quiet and still on October 31, 2009. Irma and Claudialee passed the modest wood-frame homes with yards fronted by low chain-link or wrought-iron fences. American flags fluttered beside satellite dishes. Not a single person was in sight. Just the kind of tranquility a family hopes for when they move to Elmhurst.

Mother and daughter stopped in front of a cream-colored three-story house, then walked up the driveway to a concrete backyard. Irma might as well have been taking Claudialee to a classmate’s birthday party.

Court documents, medical records, and interviews would detail what followed.

The pair descended a stairwell to a minimalist setup: a desk and several chairs. Curtains forming two makeshift rooms. Dr. Arlene Mercado’s office was in the basement of her sister Myra Mercado Capistrano’s house.

Mercado opened the clinic in 2007. Thirteen different insurance companies listed her practice in their network. She had a second practice at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn. And she accepted Medicaid, the government health program for low-income people. She was a pediatric endocrinologist, specializing in children and the hormones and chemicals that could stunt growth or bring on early puberty. The most common issue she dealt with was diabetes.

She was well versed in practice, if not theory. Mercado was not board-certified in her specialty, American Board of Pediatrics records show. She failed the certification exam more than five times. Without passing that, she couldn’t attempt the next step, the pediatric endocrinology test. But these setbacks didn’t stop her. Board certification isn’t mandatory. In fact, though she couldn’t pass the test herself, Mercado taught a certification-exam review course in Children’s Hospital at SUNY Downstate.

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Her business was a family affair. Mercado had two paid employees: Myra, the clinic manager, and Myra’s husband, Edward Capistrano, the billing supervisor. The Capistranos’ children handled the patients.

Paul, a 23-year-old political science grad student with a degree in math, and Bernard, a 21-year-old graphic design major, measured heights, weights, and blood pressure. Twelve-year-old William sat at the front desk, answering phones and filling out appointment cards.

Irma handed William a referral card from Claudialee’s pediatrician, Dr. Cabatic.

She’d taken Claudialee to see Cabatic five days earlier for the first in a series of flu vaccinations. Claudialee had the sniffles, so Cabatic ran her through a full examination. Four days later, the doctor called to say that Claudialee’s urine and red blood cells showed abnormal glucose levels. Her blood sugar was above normal, suggesting the girl might become diabetic. In her notes, Cabatic wrote, “probable diabetes mellitus.”

The disease stems directly from high blood sugar. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system kills off cells that produce insulin, the hormone that brings the body’s glucose supply to muscle and fat. If the body doesn’t get more insulin, the person will die.

In type 2, a person has a lot of insulin, but the stuff just doesn’t work. Insulin resistance, doctors call it. Obesity is the usual cause. The damage is slower and can be treated through diet, exercise, and medication.

Cabatic knew Claudialee was at high risk for diabetes. The girl’s maternal grandmother, paternal grandfather, and three of her uncles had it. She recommended that the girl see a specialist and gave Irma the name of a pediatric endocrinologist who spoke Spanish and would accept her Metroplus Medicaid card. (Metroplus, a nonprofit healthcare organization that provides Medicaid in New York, did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

Irma called Mercado’s office to set up an appointment for the next morning.

After asking about the family history, Mercado took a blood sample from Claudialee. The doctor was a short, round woman who peered over thin spectacles and disarmed with a cheerful smile. She told Irma she would send the blood to a lab and they’d discuss the results in two weeks.

The test would duplicate Cabatic’s results: Claudialee’s blood sugar level was higher than normal, but not high enough to be considered diabetes. She was “prediabetic.” During the next visit, Mercado explained to Irma that the results were nothing to be too concerned about. The girl just needed to lose weight. Diet and exercise. She handed Irma a sheet of paper with a food pyramid on it.

In her notes, Mercado wrote that if the patient didn’t lose weight by her next checkup in mid-December, she would prescribe Metformin, a drug used to treat type 2 diabetes.

Though type 2 used to be called “adult-onset” diabetes, Mercado knew recent studies had shown that a growing number of kids were getting it. At 3-foot-9 and 67 pounds, Claudialee was clinically obese. Mercado noticed a dark spot on her neck, often a sign of insulin resistance.

By her next appointment on December 12, things were looking up. Claudialee was thinner. Mercado didn’t conduct any tests or ask many questions. It was a brief but reassuring meeting, full of grins and calming words. Claudialee is fine, the doctor told Irma. She just needs to drop another pound or two. Diet and exercise.

In her notes, Mercado wrote that she’d administer another blood glucose test on the next visit. As Irma left, William handed her an appointment card telling them to come back on February 23.

Cabatic echoed Mercado’s optimism when the mother and daughter returned on January 9 for the girl’s final flu shot. It happened that Claudialee had come home early from school the day before. During snack time, she complained that her heart was beating faster than normal. The nurse sent Irma a note saying a doctor had to sign off before Claudialee could return to class. Cabatic assessed her vital signs. Normal heart rate and blood pressure. No cough. No chest pain. No difficulty breathing. All was stable.

Cabatic had more good news: In the 10 weeks since the October 26 checkup, Claudialee had lost five pounds and grown two inches.

As far as the doctors could tell, Claudialee was getting healthier by the week.

On January 21, Marta Nicanor, Irma’s sister, picked up her six-year-old son, Gustavo, and Claudialee from school. Irma worked as a housekeeper for a family in Port Washington, Long Island. Most days she left her apartment at 8:30 a.m. and didn’t get home until nearly 8 p.m, so Claudialee spent most of her evenings at her aunt’s place. She’d play with Gustavo, her best friend.

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Claudialee told Marta she was tired and that her stomach had been bothering her. She wanted to lie down. Marta called Irma, who called Dr. Cabatic to schedule an appointment for first thing the following morning. She left work early and arrived at her sister’s apartment about 4:30 p.m.

When Claudialee heard her mother come in, she hopped out of bed, ran over to her, and threw up. Irma took her to their apartment, one floor up in the same building.

Born less than 15 months apart, Irma and Marta were closer to one another than to any of their other six siblings. The family grew up poor in the state of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City, and they both dreamed of raising their children in the United States. When they were in their early 20s, they made their way north. Over the years, they would earn the solid, working-class life they’d aspired to.

For a while Irma lived in East Harlem with Claudialee’s father, Napolean Gomez. They separated when Claudialee was a year old. Irma moved in with Marta and her husband in Flushing. She stayed for a year, waiting for an apartment to open up in the same building. She wanted to live near her sister, who stayed home to look after her three children. There was nobody Irma trusted more with the care of her daughter.

Irma took Claudialee’s temperature. No fever. She offered food but the girl wasn’t hungry. She was very thirsty, though. Irma placed Gatorade and ginger ale on the nightstand by her bed, but Claudialee only wanted water. She napped for a couple of hours, then gulped more water. She fell back to sleep at about 10 p.m., with her mother lying beside her.

Claudialee woke up drowsy. She always dressed herself, but on this day Irma had to do it for her.

They made the 10-minute walk and got to Dr. Cabatic’s clinic at 9:30 a.m. It didn’t open until 10, but Irma routinely arrived at doctors’ appointments early. Then 9:30 became 10:30 and 10:30 became 11. The door remained locked. Irma called Cabatic’s cell phone and office line seven times. No answer.

Claudialee kept saying her stomach ached, that she felt tired and really thirsty. She’d vomited three more times that morning.

She normally didn’t complain about things—she was the type of girl who fell off a scooter, scraped her knee, and got right back on without hesitation. Irma called a cab and asked the driver to take them to New York Hospital.

Claudialee began to sway and stumble as they walked toward the emergency room. Before reaching the entrance, she nearly collapsed. Irma picked her up and carried her the rest of the way.

As hospital workers ran tests, a nurse asked Irma if Claudialee had been urinating more and drinking more than usual recently. Irma said she had noticed her daughter doing both since Christmas.

This suggested that Claudialee’s blood sugar had been rising.

The test results—five times the normal level—supported that hypothesis.

“When the doctors came in and told me about blood-sugar levels—that was a surprise,” Irma tells the Voice. “That was the last thing I expected to hear. That’s when I knew something was really wrong.”

There had been other signs. Months after Claudialee checked into New York Hospital’s ER, pediatric endocrinologist Craig Alter reviewed her medical records. He was shocked, unable to understand why Dr. Mercado had so quickly ruled out type 1 diabetes.

“If you tell me there is a five-year-old with diabetes, the chance that they have type 1 is probably 99.99 percent,” he would later testify. “If you tell me they are obese, I would say, okay, the chance is 99.7. It’s almost definitely type 1.”

Alter, a physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is one of the world’s top experts on diabetes in kids. He teaches a pediatric endocrinology class at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. He is chairman of the Educational Committee for the Endocrine Society and gives lectures across the globe. In 2001, he founded Camp Freedom, a summer program in Pennsylvania that brings together diabetic youth for a week of swimming, hiking, and sharing insulin-injection stories around the bonfire. Last year, 140 kids registered; 139 of them had type 1.

Even though rates of type 2 are rising among minors, the condition remains rare in children under 10 years old. The National Institutes of Health report that one out of every 5,000 kids in that age group has type 1 diabetes, while one out of every 250,000 gets type 2. The reason is simple: Type 1 is a condition people are born with or acquire very early in life; type 2 develops over time—enough time for the body to build a resistance to insulin.

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Not only is type 1 far more common in six-year-olds, it is also far more urgent.

“Type 2, you have a little more luxury of time. Type 1, you do not have the luxury of time,” Alter testified. “Type 1, if we don’t give them insulin, they will die.”

Blood sugar is like temperature—it rises gradually. In the months since Claudialee’s last tests, the girl’s blood sugar level continued to rise, right under her doctors’ noses.

Even as the puzzle pieces began to emerge, each showing a symptom of the disease, neither Mercado nor Cabatic saw the whole picture. Weight loss can indicate that the body is starving as a result of its failure to absorb glucose. Sudden heart palpitations can indicate that the body is dehydrated from losing the sugar-laden fluids via urination.

“In a child where there is a possibility of diabetes, any symptoms that develop that might be linked to diabetes have to be assumed diabetes until proven otherwise,” Alter said. “You look for anything to tip you over the edge. The appropriate treatment would have been more-frequent monitoring to determine if diabetes was present then, or to catch it early within a few days, had it progressed.”

Because Mercado had locked in on type 2, she did not monitor her patient’s blood. She did not tell Irma to purchase a $20 blood sugar meter from the drugstore. She did not ask Irma about the frequency with which her daughter drank and urinated. And neither she nor Cabatic described to Irma the danger signs to look out for.

“Being that she has a family history of diabetes, I would be thinking that she would know the symptoms of diabetes,” Cabatic later testified in court.

Even after it was clear that Claudialee suffered from type 1, Mercado stood by her diagnosis. When later questioned in court, she disagreed with the notion that type 2 diabetes is uncommon in young kids.

“How many type 2 infant diabetics have you treated?” a lawyer asked her.

“A lot,” she replied. “Maybe it’s geographical, because I work at Brooklyn as an assistant professor and also in wellness program where there are a lot of obese children, so we diagnose a lot of children with type 2 diabetes.”

It’s tempting to assume that Claudialee received substandard care because of her family’s income status. Doctors don’t make as much money treating Medicaid beneficiaries, explains Jim Sheehan, former New York State Medicaid inspector general. A specialist earns as little as $30 a visit. By contrast, a pediatric endocrinologist treating someone with private insurance gets nearly $100 an hour. So Medicaid providers often have trouble filling their networks with enough doctors who specialize in common issues like diabetes. Patients are sometimes left to the lesser skilled or lesser known—doctors who can’t afford to turn away the business.

“Some specialties, they have a very tough time recruiting people to be Medicaid-based,” says Sheehan. “And so you’re not gonna say, ‘We want board-certified.'”

Though she’d failed to earn certification, Arlene Mercado had established a respectable career. She graduated from the University of Santo Tomas’s medical school in the Philippines in 1984 and spent much of the next decade treating poor people in rural villages. She came to the U.S. in the mid-1990s, interning at Harlem Hospital before beginning her residency at Pitt County Memorial Hospital in Greenville, North Carolina. Her transition reflected competence: Foreign doctors must complete a rigorous testing process to become licensed here.

After two years of endocrinology training at the National Institutes of Health, Mercado took a position as a senior fellow at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. In 2006, SUNY Downstate hired her as an attending physician. Two years later, she was named associate medical director of the hospital’s wellness program for obese and diabetic patients. (SUNY did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

By the time Mercado treated Claudialee, a good number of experienced doctors had vouched for her. She’d co-authored at least seven academic papers in peer-reviewed journals. Multiple private insurance companies added her to their networks. Over the course of her career in New York, she sustained a spotless record. Not once had the Office of Professional Medical Conduct, an investigatory division of the New York State Department of Health, taken disciplinary action against her.

Shortly after sunset on January 23, 2010, Irma and Napolean sat in the waiting room at New York Presbyterian Cornell Medical Center. Claudialee had been transferred there a few hours before. Family and friends surrounded the parents.

A doctor approached and explained what was happening to their daughter. Claudialee’s blood sugar had been rising for months. Because she didn’t have enough insulin, her body burned fatty acids as an alternative fuel source. As those acids accumulated, they poisoned her body, and its systems began to shut down. The resulting nerve damage allowed fluids to seep into her brain, causing it to swell and pushing her further from consciousness. Twice that evening, doctors had had to resuscitate Claudialee. Now only machines kept her alive.

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There was almost no chance she would recover.

That reality was dawning on Irma. She’d tried to stay optimistic, to stay strong for her only child. She’d dedicated herself to building a life for her daughter. She thought she’d done everything right. Coming to America. Working the long hours that might pull them up the economic ladder. Signing the girl up for dance classes and after-school tutoring sessions. And all those doctor visits. She wondered what she should have done better.

She felt guilty and betrayed. She’d put her faith in the healthcare process and it failed her.

Irma asked about organ donation. The doctor told her that wouldn’t be possible. Her daughter’s organs were damaged beyond repair.

The family members entered Claudialee’s room and said their goodbyes.

On a summer afternoon, the waiting room of Downstate Pediatrics Associates is filled with nearly two dozen people. There are babies in strollers, parents reading magazines, and grade-schoolers playing tag. There are giggles and stomps and adults saying things like “give that man his sunglasses back” and “take that sticker off your face.”

A reporter approaches the front desk and asks to speak with Dr. Arlene Mercado. The receptionist goes to get her.

It has been a rough few weeks for Mercado. In July, a jury found her 100 percent liable for the death of Claudialee Gomez-Nicanor. (Cabatic, also a defendant, was cleared.) In her testimony, Mercado admitted to having thrown away her original notes from Claudialee’s treatments after learning she had been subpoenaed. Before discarding them, she typed up copies for the court. The new version indicated that she had intended to administer a blood test at Claudialee’s next appointment in January 2010, days before the girl’s death.

But Irma had been meticulous with her daughter’s medical documents. She’d kept the appointment card for their next visit, which wasn’t until February 23.

Jurors awarded Irma $100,000 for economic loss, $400,000 for her daughter’s pain and suffering, plus $7.5 million in punitive damages for Mercado’s malpractice. “It’s not covered by insurance,” Judge Darrell Gavrin pointed out at trial. Gavrin has yet to make a final judgment on the total sum Mercado must pay.

It’s unlikely that Mercado has to worry about a state sanction. Historically, the Department of Health has doled out punishment only once it recognizes a pattern of misbehavior or incompetence. (The department did not respond to interview requests.)

“There are many physicians who have been sued and lost a malpractice case and are still practicing,” says a New York government official who works closely with the medical industry and was not authorized to publicly discuss the subject. “The Office of Professional Medical Conduct will take a look at trends, as opposed to an isolated incident.”

Staten Island cosmetic surgeon Robert Cattani, for instance, tallied 40 malpractice suits before the state revoked his medical license in September 2012. Another plastic surgeon in Brooklyn didn’t lose his license until regulators found negligence on seven occasions.

Between 2001 and 2011, according to a USA Today investigation, of about 400 doctors who had their clinical privileges reduced or revoked by a medical institution in New York, more than half had never been assessed a single state penalty.

Mercado still runs a private practice. She still serves on the SUNY faculty. So it’s understandable that she’s reluctant to discuss the case. She stands at the door that separates the waiting area from the treatment rooms, holding it halfway closed like a reluctant homeowner talking to a salesman.

“I did my best for this patient,” Mercado says. “I know in my heart that I did everything for this patient.”

She declines to go into specifics or answer any questions.

“I’ll just stay silent on this, because God knows best,” she says, pointing to the ceiling with both index fingers.

Then she closes the door. Her afternoon schedule is full. There’s a roomful of patients awaiting treatment.

asamaha@villagevoice.com

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Jerry’s City of Ghosts

The letter arrived via certified mail one day last October, and as soon as Jerry Rice opened it, he called his friend Steve Helfer. “Please help me,” Jerry said.

Jerry, 68, was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid 1980s, and in recent years he’d suffered a heart attack, a stroke, and the loss of sight in one eye. Now, with his one good eye, he scanned the typewritten words in front of him, then relayed the bad news to Steve: The State University of New York, which had recently bought his apartment building, planned to evict him.

Jerry had moved into his apartment—a rent-controlled one-bedroom at 119 East 54th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues—in 1970. Ever since, the rent had remained the same: $237 a month. But now that a state institution owned the building, it was exempt from the city’s rent regulations. In mid January, a notice arrived from SUNY ordering Jerry to vacate his apartment by February 28.

For eight years, beginning in the late 1970s, Steve lived in this apartment with Jerry. The two men have been close friends since 1976 and were lovers for 15 years. Steve has AIDS, too, but he’s nine years younger and his health is better, so he’s the one who’s been calling local politicians to plead for help. To anybody who will listen, Steve explains that Jerry can’t afford to lose his apartment because he lives on Social Security disability, which pays $1,042 a month.

Steve’s efforts to help Jerry are about more than holding on to a rent-controlled apartment—they are also about trying to hold on to the past, to the history both men share and the memories neither wants to forget. Beginning in the late 1970s—when AIDS had yet to be named—the two men started losing friends. Over the next two decades, AIDS killed more than 100 people they knew.

“At this point, Jerry is my partner in life,” Steve says. “He’s really the only friend I have left from those days—and vice versa. Everybody died. And for some reason, we’re both still here. . . . I love him, I care for him, and I can’t bear to see him put out on the street.”


Jerry was 32 years old when he lucked into the third-floor apartment on East 54th Street. A friend had moved out, and Jerry convinced the landlord to let him move in. He was so excited, he says, “I went outside on the street and twirled.” Then he ran off to Bloomingdale’s. He quickly maxed out his credit cards, buying carpets, two Barcelona lounge chairs, a four-poster bed, and a $3,000 coffee table with steel legs and a thick glass top. “I had an apartment in the East Fifties,” he says. “It had to be fabulous.”

Jerry met Steve in the summer of 1976, though Jerry’s recollections of their first encounters are fuzzy. “We met on Fire Island many times,” Steve says. “He just didn’t notice me. I was really after him all summer.” One night they both happened to be at the Ice Palace, the island’s legendary disco. “He was standing alone, and I went right across that big dance floor, heading right towards him,” Steve says. “This was it—this was my chance.”

When he got four feet away, another man walked over and handed Jerry a drink. Steve stopped. “I made an about-face and covered myself like you would not believe,” he says. “One tries not to make an ass of oneself when they can help it.”

A few months later, in October, both men found themselves on the deck of a ship departing from Manhattan for a one-night gay cruise. They spent that evening together—and the rest of the weekend. On Monday, Steve called Jerry at work. “Will you have dinner with me tonight?” he asked. Jerry agreed. The relationship, he says, “was sealed right then and there.”

Jerry quit his job as a magazine editor and started pouring all his energies into Fancy From Delancey, the store that Steve owned on Fire Island, just off the ferry dock in Cherry Grove. Jerry hung a mirrored ball from the ceiling and acted as the store DJ, compiling tapes with disco hits. When “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight came on, the whole staff—and sometimes all the customers too—would sing backup.

The store sold shorts, T-shirts, bathing suits, flip-flops—plus stuffed animals, gay history books, sex toys, and raunchy greeting cards. According to Jerry and Steve, their shoppers included Calvin Klein, Bess Myerson, Mel Brooks, and Anne Bancroft. Tommy Tune bought tank tops; Twiggy checked out the bikinis; Colleen Dewhurst loved their cotton slacks.

The staff never said, “Can I help you?” Instead, the store protocol was to greet every customer with a compliment, like, “You’ve got a great tan” or “Your hair is beautiful.” If a customer was particularly difficult, an employee would shout, “Nurse! Nurse!”—the signal for another staff member to swoop in. “What we were selling was fun,” Jerry says, “but that fun made the cash registers full.”

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One day in the early 1980s, an employee came in with a blotch on his nose. Nobody knew what it was. “You better go to the doctor tomorrow,” they told him. As it turned out, it was Kaposi’s sarcoma, caused by the illness that became known as AIDS. In the years that followed, Jerry and Steve hung a huge basket of free condoms at the front of the store. They put a can on the counter to collect money for God’s Love We Deliver. And they had volunteers seated at a table out front, distributing pamphlets about AIDS.

In 1996, after 20 years in business, Fancy From Delancey closed. By then Steve and Jerry were too sick to run the shop anymore.



Steve Helfer left, Jerry Rice right
photo: Courtesy Steve Helfer

Today Jerry’s apartment does not at all resemble the showplace he created in the 1970s. There is no Barcelona lounge chair, no pricey coffee table, no carpet, no four-poster bed. Jerry has about 20,000 records—he used to DJ at Les Mouches and other clubs—but the metal shelves that hold them are sagging. The bedroom ceiling collapsed about 10 years ago, when water from the upstairs apartment broke through. The shelves in one corner were destroyed and never repaired; now they’re covered by brown water stains and peeling paint.

A small black leather address book rests on the table next to Jerry’s bed. Inside are the names of 90 men he once knew, three or four per page. “There’s at least two on every page that’s no longer here,” he says, flipping through the book. “I’d call up one of these guys and his mother would answer and say, ‘Mark is no longer with us.’ But I didn’t cross their names out because I wanted them to go on living in my head.”

Jerry has a ritual he practices, to ensure he doesn’t forget anyone: He recites the names of his friends who’ve died. It’s something he used to do when he took his daily walks on the beaches at Fire Island. Now he says the names silently on his daily trip to the deli, as he slowly makes his way along the sidewalk with his one good eye. “I say the names of as many people as I can think of. Sometimes I’ll do 30, sometimes 10,” he says. “Then I’ll go and buy my tuna fish sandwich and think of five more on my way back.”


Steve taught special ed in the city’s schools until 2002, when he, too, started collecting Social Security disability. One day, about four years ago, he walked into Jerry’s apartment and found him sprawled on the floor, his pants soaked. Jerry did not wake up until he was in the intensive care unit at St. Vincent’s. He’d had a heart attack; Steve had saved his life. These days, Steve and Jerry see each other three or four times a week, and some nights Jerry stays at Steve’s place.

A few years ago, the owner of Jerry’s building—which was then TIAA-CREF, the pension fund for teachers—tried to evict him. With help from Steve, Jerry paid a lawyer $14,803 to fight back. It was the equivalent of five years’ rent, but the investment worked. Jerry won. “It’s over! Congratulations,” the lawyer wrote to him in January 2004. Jerry was relieved. “I thought I would have a home until I died.”

But then, in 2005, SUNY bought the buildings at 119 and 121 East 54th Street, and sent letters to the four tenants telling them they’d have to leave. SUNY plans to open a center for corporate executives and graduate students called the Levin Institute, named after Neil Levin, the executive director of the Port Authority who perished on 9-11. For the properties that included Jerry’s building, SUNY paid $21.5 million. “The building is going to be put to good use,” a spokesman says.

The stress of another eviction threat was more than Jerry could bear. His weight plunged from 170 pounds to 145. Steve did everything he could to help: He convinced Jerry’s state assemblyman, state senator, and city councilman to write letters on his behalf; he studied the Levin Institute’s website and called some of its board members; he brought Jerry packaged dinners from Fairway to help him gain weight.

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At press time, Jerry has received no reprieve from SUNY, no promise of another apartment or a large payment. He has been trying to stay calm by listening to his disco records. But of course, he can’t stop thinking about his future. “They’re not going to say, ‘All right, Mr. Rice, it’s time to leave,’ ” he says, seated atop his bed on a recent afternoon, his voice growing louder and more insistent. “I will be in the apartment and will handcuff myself to the radiator. They’re not going to get me out of here.”

jgonnerman@villagevoice.com

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Re-Rethinking SUNY

There are critics who say that the State University of New York is too big and costly to subsidize the way Albany once did. But the claim that the state doesn’t have the money to adequately fund public education is the result of skewed budgetary priorities. The assertion that there are costly redundancies in the programs offered within the 64-campus system is a smoke screen for downsizing efforts. The argument that SUNY is a drain on state coffers, and that students and their parents should pick up the budgetary slack, is a privatization agenda in fiscal-hardship clothing. And all these contentions are a product of the subversion of the traditional thinking about the state university and its role in the state’s economy. They gain mainstream acceptance through the steady drumbeat of the fiscally conservative groupthink coming out of Albany. So public support is reduced, aid is cut, tuition raised.

But there is another conception of SUNY—one that sees the university not as an economic drain, but a needed and neglected engine. A healthy and properly funded state university system can meet its historic mission of making college affordable, while also creating jobs and providing a steady stream of educated graduates who will ensure New York’s future economic health. The Economic Policy Institute’s Timothy Bartik found in 1996 that boosting the funding for public higher education led to more manufacturing output. There are many fiscal observers, economists, academics, and politicians who understand this, but their voices have been drowned out. They all agree that a paradigm shift is way overdue.

But it won’t come easily, and it is unlikely to come under the current administration. Since Governor George Pataki took office in 1994, he has pushed for record tuition hikes coupled with large cuts in aid funding. Tuition was raised an unprecedented 28 percent last year, from $3,400 to $4,350, and Chancellor Robert King has again signaled this year that tuition hikes are expected. Far from easing the tax burden on New York’s families, such raises shift the onus onto students and their parents.

“State funding for SUNY and CUNY has essentially flatlined in the past number of years,” says NYPIRG’s higher-ed coordinator, Miriam Kramer. “The state has to increase support, not force students to pay more to get the status quo.”

State legislators agree. Assemblyman Ron Canestrari, who chairs the higher-education committee, said that King’s proposal to institute yearly, automatic tuition increases is the wrong way to meet SUNY’s budgetary needs. “I don’t like it,” Canestrari says. “The details have not been fleshed out.”

While members on both sides of the aisle of the New York State legislature have repeatedly restored or reduced Pataki’s proposed cuts to the SUNY budget, Pataki has been steadfast in his efforts to shrink the state’s support, hinting that his SUNY policy has more to do with ideology than politics. In his State of the State address on January 7, Pataki proposed “a new capital initiative that includes our independent colleges and universities—a critical part of our state’s higher- education system.” But what that soft language glosses over is the fact that the state will now help private universities construct new buildings on their campuses—this at a time when he also argues that New York does not have enough money to meet its public-university needs.

“The ideology of privatization—that’s what’s really going on here,” says recently retired SUNY-Buffalo professor Lionel S. Lewis, who specializes in higher-education issues. He sees the current shift away from subsidizing public education as part of a 30-year change in the way state schools are funded. “The golden age of public higher education was between 1945 and 1975,” he says, attributing the growth to the federal largesse stemming from the Cold War and its research needs. Since then, the Soviet threat has ended, along with the money the federal and state governments poured into the competition for science advancements.

Lewis refutes the criticism, put forth by smaller-SUNY advocates such as trustee Candace de Russy, that campus program redundancies (that is, the number of campuses that offer similar or identical courses of study) are wasteful, and need to be fiscally justified or eliminated. “The life of the mind is a good in itself,” Lewis says. “It doesn’t need a justification.” Offering duplicate programs at a variety of state campuses allows students to get a broader education, and opens the door for academic exploration.

But eliminating courses because they are offered on other campuses is only one of the proposals outlined by de Russy in her now infamous 1995 manifesto, “Rethinking SUNY.” Along with advocating the elimination of “unnecessarily duplicative programs,” it proposes allowing market forces to shape the university and its offerings, increased public-private partnerships, the adoption of differential tuition, and a gradual system of tuition increases. In recent years, SUNY has partnered with the private sector in the establishment of facilities such as a nanotechnology research center in Albany. Is the systematic paring down of course offerings far behind?

That’s not to say that SUNY hasn’t experienced any growth at all. The nation’s science and research needs are reflected in the kinds of programs added to SUNY’s curriculum, and in the state government’s choices in capital development projects. The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is one project that SUNY, in conjunction with four other regional organizations, has pursued for its potential to act as an economic booster. Located on a 100-acre campus in a struggling city whose lifeblood was once manufacturing, the project has already brought in $300 million a year to the Buffalo area, and is hoped to bring in more in the future, according to Amy Schmit, the campus’s associate director. “It’s a top priority for the city,” she says, adding that city officials, in a recent economic plan, named the campus as one of five target investment areas.

In addition to technology investment, SUNY has recently announced the creation in Manhattan of the Neil D. Levin Graduate Institute of International Relations and Commerce, to be headed by former newsman Garrick Utley. The new graduate school has yet to find a home or classroom space, but it is part of a highly publicized effort by SUNY to strengthen its city presence.

But such efforts are the exception, not the rule. Moreover, many of these investments are conceived with very profit-oriented motives. Biomedical research is one of the biggest moneymaking sectors—if not the biggest—of the next decade or so, and almost all of SUNY’s development efforts in the field are the result of private-public partnerships designed, in part, to enrich the companies and individuals investing in them. That’s not a bad thing in itself, say critics, but it leaves many other areas of the university system neglected.

The very existence of a campus, with its army of faculty, staff, administrators, and students, is a huge economic boon to the surrounding areas, argues Tom Kriger, the director of research and legislation for the United University Professions, the union that represents most of SUNY’s faculty members. “SUNY used to put out economic impact statements for the whole system,” he says, referring to the administrative office that published the reports until the mid 1990s. “When the current administration took over, there was an effort to downsize administration, and that was one of the places that was cut.” Individual campuses have published such studies related to the impact in their individual regions in the interim, he says, and points to one done by Stony Brook stating that the school’s affiliations in the area have added over 2,900 jobs. (The study also puts the school’s broader regional impact at $2.5 billion.)

But without those comprehensive economic impact studies, it’s harder for advocates to lobby the state legislature for more money. “Since 1998, SUNY has added about 42,000 students,” says Kriger, in reference to the current historic enrollment levels. “We haven’t had a commensurate increase in the faculty—that’s like adding a full-time campus the size of Buffalo without faculty or staff.”

Investments in medical research, with their possibilities for profits generated from patented medical technologies and breakthroughs, are obviously beneficial, but less visible are the benefits derived from students, faculty, and staff spending money and bringing intellectual capital into the areas where they live, work, and study. By making it harder for students to afford college and by freezing faculty hiring, Albany is hurting the state’s financial health in the long run. That’s both penny-foolish and pound-foolish, especially since the evidence shows that more SUNY means more money for New York. It’s an investment that, in time, could help soften the blow of future economic downturns, while helping SUNY live up to its nearly broken promise of providing affordable higher education to every New Yorker who wants it.

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Six Feet Undergraduate

Enrollment in mortuary science and funeral service programs is up—thanks to the popularity of HBO’s Six Feet Under. “We saw a definite spike in interest,” says George P. Connick, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education. “Suddenly, Americans were seeing that funeral service is a multi-faceted profession.”

Students of mortuary science take biology, pathology, chemistry, and anatomy, but as might be expected, study embalming (firsthand experience is not optional) and the restorative arts as well. The history of funeral service and the psychology of grief are other areas of mandatory study, and coursework in ethics and law (both mortuary and business) are standard in all programs. Approximately half of all students are women, a decided aberration from statistics even a decade ago.

Prospective students can choose from 54 accredited institutions nationwide, which generally bestow an associate degree; currently, only four offer a baccalaureate. Upon graduation, candidates must sit for the National Board Examination (NBE) and pass a state exam, then intern for one year before being granted a funeral service license.

After graduation, employment opportunities are significant. According to SUNY-Canton, salaries range from $18,200 to $28,000 for apprentices, and $41,000 to $85,000 for licensed directors with experience. About 90 percent of graduates who seek work find employment within six months.

But does a degree prepare you for what lies ahead? According to Alison Ohde River, a mortuary science student about to become a fourth-generation funeral director-embalmer, the answer is mixed. “The academic scenario doesn’t account for the complexity of day-to-day practice. You have to be flexible and informed—and responsive. People are coming to you at an emotional and vulnerable time. They aren’t predictable.” According to River, subjects that seem distinct in the classroom aren’t so in practice. “When a family is grieving, they have questions,” she says. “Extremely technical questions. And you have to be able to answer them in detail.”


If mortuary science interests you, you can choose from five accredited institutions in New York State, and dozens more out of state. Most are community colleges, but some are traditional institutions, which, until about 40 years ago, were the only places at which a student could study funeral service. A high school diploma or equivalent, ideally with strong grades in science and math, is required.

The State University of New York College of Technology at Canton (canton.edu) offers an associate degree in applied science (68 credit hours). The school has an embalming facility, lab space, and an informal chapel. Students work in a funeral home for five weeks during a summer practicum. By the end of the second semester, students will have performed 10 embalmings and conducted 10 funeral services. In-state tuition is $4,350 a year. A distance-learning course is offered.

SUNY-Nassau Community College (ncc.edu) offers an associate in applied science, with a concentration in mortuary science. The Garden City, New York, institution will allow students to complete some liberal arts credits by distance learning. Students pay $2,650 per academic year.

If you want to study in the city, the American Academy McAllister Institute (a-a-m-I.org) is now located at its new facility at 619 West 54th Street. Founded in 1926, the institute offers an associate degree in occupational studies for $4,300 a semester and a separate 12-month diploma program in funeral service for the same fees. The school has a dress code (“No jeans, sweatpants, sweatshirts, T-shirts, or spandex”) and is affiliated with St. John’s University, St. Joseph’s College, and LaGuardia Community College.

Hudson Valley Community College (hvcc.edu) in Troy, New York, has a mortuary science department and offers an associate degree in applied science (60 credit hours) for $2,500 per academic year to in-state students. Following graduation and after passing the National Board Exam, students serve as registered residents for one year before becoming licensed funeral directors.

The only school in the U.S. to offer classes on weekends as well as weekdays, Simmons Institute of Funeral Service (simmonsinstitute.com) in Syracuse, New York, offers a 62-credit-hour associate degree in occupational science. Practicum credit begins the first semester. Tuition is $9,400 per academic year. Students are expected to complete a minimum of 10 case calls prior to graduation. The institute offers a full graduate placement service.

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Johnny Comes Marching Home

Location Greenpoint

Rent $1,300 (market)

Square feet 760 (top floor of Civil War-era brick house)

Occupants Kirsten Swenson (art critic; Ph.D. candidate and teacher, SUNY-Stony Brook); Stephen Shapinsky (teacher, P.S. 31, Greenpoint; musician, the Line and Sinker Trust)

This desk—leather panels, pressed gold borders. [Kirsten] My friend’s father’s girlfriend was very close friends with this Russian-literature professor at Hunter. The professor passed away and left everything to my friend’s father’s girlfriend. And my friend invited me to come to the Park Avenue penthouse and just take whatever we wanted. I got the desk, the Chinese rug. She lived in one of those gorgeous brick buildings, small windows, pre-war. Similar to ones in movies from the ’40s, Hitchcock films, not as spacious and extravagant as one would think, very small kitchen, finely detailed. No, I don’t know if she lived with anyone.

Did you find any love letters? No, just this letter exchange with the Soviet government.

I’ll try to get off this topic, but didn’t she have anyone to leave her things to? She was quite old. Nobody survived her, I guess.

This table is lit with blue and amber panels. Stephen made it. [Stephen] With very little know-how, you can design pieces of furniture. Kirsten liked a friend’s George Nelson knockoff. [Kirsten] It was a reissue. [Stephen] We thought it wouldn’t be that hard to knock it off ourselves—some plywood from the neighborhood, the foam store on East Houston. Kirsten did the cushions and there you go. [Kirsten] Fake Nelson hairpin legs from eBay. [Stephen measures the apartment.]

A metal tape measure being pulled out. It sounds like something is happening, something is going to be built. I wanted to talk about the Byzantine Catholic church near here, where I first talked to you outside on a brilliantly sunny Sunday and you were talking about getting married, though not there. Then I started reading about Byzantine Catholicism but I realized that I only cared about the way the light was on that day, far from Manhattan. You are so near the water. Stephen, you look so conflicted. [Stephen] Everybody has this ambivalence and frustration about the waterfront because it’s so close but so underused. [Kirsten] It’s just an industrial wasteland. [Stephen] If they ever develop it, it will price everybody out. [Kirsten] Some of Stephen’s students live across the courtyard. Sometimes we’re spied on. We hear them call, “Mr. Shapinsky.” [Stephen] It sounds more like Mr. Shapeeeeensky.” [Kirsten] After a class on sentence construction, you could hear them yell, “Mr. Shapinsky, what are three kinds of sentences?”

We got this apartment because the realtor confused our application with that of a much higher-income couple with no cat. It is quite a bit nicer than most dumpy places we saw. Then we met the landlords and we got along so well. Our landlady likes that every unit has a teacher. [Stephen] They don’t like the terms landlady or landlord. [Kirsten] We try to say landpeople. My old landlady, she sort of kicked me out. I started dating Stephen and he made more commotion. So I was asked to leave. I was paying almost nothing. Then, when we got this place she and her sister were sort of miffed that we had gotten an apartment on the most prestigious block in Greenpoint, part of the historic district.

People get so excited when their house has a past. I was really depressed once in New Jersey and one of those home shows was on, Secret Walls or something. People were popping up with newspapers they’d found in their house—1856! 1929! Here, we’re just passing through. We sometimes think how people lived in this building during the Civil War. One time Stephen imagined a wounded Civil War soldier coming home to this apartment.

In his dusty blue uniform. I once lived in a former Civil War hospital in another city but only for a week because I could just hear the amputations. The whiskey amputations.


schlesinger@villagevoice.com

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SUNY, Inc.

The new Charles B. Wang Center rises impressively at the threshold to SUNY’s flagship campus in Stony Brook. It’s a sprawling, brown-bricked neo-castle, distinguished by modernist “Asian” flourishes — oversized, frosted shoji-screen windows and a looming central tower that’s supposed to resemble a pagoda. When the $40 million facility finally opens October 22, after five years of construction, it will realize donor and Computer Associates CEO Charles Wang’s vision to provide a venue for the appreciation of Asian American culture. The product of the biggest private donation to a public university in history, it’s also a vivid symbol of the growing ties between private enterprise and the nation’s largest public university system.

In the eight years since Governor George Pataki took office, the State University of New York has undergone a dramatic shift in mission and tone. A Republican elected on a small-government platform, Pataki has slowly but markedly moved the university away from its stated mission of access and affordability and shaped it along the lines of his free-market, lower-taxes philosophy. Its deepening relationship with the corporate sector is only one example of the changes afoot. Under rules introduced in 1998, campuses now keep the tuition they bring in, rather than sending it to SUNY’s general fund, making them compete for students and funding. Enrollment and class sizes have grown without the funding to match. Housing shortages at schools like Buffalo and Stony Brook are a perennial concern. And the SUNY system, which was once practically free, is now one of the least affordable public universities in the nation. According to the New York Public Interest Research Group, while tuition has remained stagnant for the past six years, “New York’s public college tuition has risen by a staggering 155 percent over the past decade, the fourth largest increase in the nation.”

These drastic changes were made possible in part because of a sustained effort by Pataki to politicize public higher education as never before. He has placed cronies, aides, and pawns in a dizzying array of SUNY positions, from chancellor to some of the lower-rung administrative spots that were typically left alone by the governor. But his most valued pieces, the trustees, are the key to controlling the mammoth university.

Upon their appointment, Pataki’s first few choices for the board of trustees — including Edward Cox, a corporate lawyer married to Richard Nixon’s daughter Patricia, and Candace de Russy, an arch-conservative anti-tax activist who later achieved national notoriety for her controversial stances [see “Toy Story,” Village Voice, June 12] — went straight to work deciding how they wanted to rearrange the university system they had just joined. A few months into their appointment, they produced a document — more polemic than study — titled “Rethinking SUNY,” a 17-page wish list of ways to make the expansive and expensive system hew more closely to conservative fiscal principles. Among the proposals were letting market forces determine tuition, the elimination of “unnecessarily duplicative” programs, the privatization of SUNY’s teaching hospitals, and increased tuition for students who take more than four years to complete their degrees (more than two-thirds of all college students, according to the Department of Education). Virtually none of the proposals were adopted.

By 1997, the governor was attracting media attention for the frequency with which he made his appointments to SUNY from the ranks of his employees, campaign workers, and sympathetic ideologues. That May, the trustees quietly met and approved the appointment of Pataki’s deputy director of operations Michael Clemente as general manager of the SUNY construction fund; first deputy secretary to Pataki, Donald Dunn, was given the job of executive vice chancellor; and David Farren, the husband of the governor’s then state health commissioner, Barbara DeBuono, was named associate vice chancellor for marketing and enrollment management. These are but a few of his dozens of political appointments.

When SUNY officials did not play ball, Pataki had them ejected. One early casualty of conscience was then chancellor Thomas Bartlett, who in 1996 had the temerity to protest the governor’s attempts to slash SUNY’s budget and was pushed out for his efforts. Upon leaving, he criticized the Pataki-appointed trustees for “not understanding the role of public higher education and their responsibility for sheltering it from politics.”

Even SUNY campus presidents weren’t safe. After an academic discussion on sexuality took place on the New Paltz campus in late 1997, then president Roger Bowen found himself under attack by Pataki and the board for allowing it, and for backing, on grounds of academic freedom, the students and faculty members who sponsored the event. After a chancellor’s committee found nothing improper about the conference, the trustees, led by de Russy, continued to criticize Bowen for his principled stance, all but forcing his resignation less than three years later.

Such actions discourage not only current professors and administrators, but prospective ones as well. “Good professors are lost, good administrators are lost, because they do not want to get into a political mud-wrestling contest,” says Manhattan assemblyman Edward Sullivan, chair of the Higher Education Committee and a frequent Pataki critic.

Having stacked the trustee deck, Pataki could be sure that his appointees would not only back him, but also implement his broad guidelines for change. That’s what happened when in 1999 he played his trump card and appointed as chancellor Robert King, his former budget director, who had no prior experience in higher education. Many critics pointed to his mostly political background as evidence that he was unfit for the job, but King dismissed such concerns at the time, telling The Chronicle of Higher Education, “I don’t think the nature of the work, being chancellor, necessarily requires an academic degree.”

Not all of Pataki’s appointments have acted in SUNY’s best interests, and a small number of them have been charged with improprieties and illegal actions. Earlier this year, for example, State Inspector General Roslynn Mauskopf quietly released a report that found two Pataki appointees guilty of violating state law by awarding the governor’s next-door neighbor a choice construction contract at SUNY Old Westbury [see Wayne Barrett’s “An Albany Whitewash,” Village Voice, April 9]. Pataki appointees Michael Clemente and Ellen Biggane — who admitted fabricating a memo to cover up the scheme — were fired as a result. Clemente claimed that SUNY chair Thomas Egan and trustee Randy Daniels had urged him to grant the construction job to the neophyte contractor.

While Pataki was assembling the team that would help him “revolutionize” SUNY, he was also pursuing his financial goals for the university. In his first budget, his proposed cuts to the system were historic in scope. He sought to slash its $1.5 billion budget in 1995 by $290 million, more than 31 percent. The proposed cuts sparked a mini-revolt at SUNY, with busloads of students, faculty members, and administrators pouring into Albany and protesting the cuts. Then-chancellor Bartlett threatened that the governor’s proposals might force a $1600 tuition hike (which would have made it the nation’s most expensive public university), along with the elimination of 120 campus programs and the shrinking of another 600 statewide. But the system’s sprawling 64-campus structure ensured that many state officials had something to lose if the SUNY campus in their district were to be hurt by Pataki’s cuts. A budget battle ensued, and the legislature finally acquiesced to a smaller package of cuts, which entailed a $750 tuition increase and a $4 million cut to the state’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).

There were more proposals for cuts in future budgets — in 1996, he proposed raising tuition by another $250, and the next year he proposed a $400 tuition hike — but the legislature always restored them. To be fair, the trend toward higher tuition and fees was well under way during the latter part of Governor Mario Cuomo’s tenure as well. In fact, since that first hike by Pataki in 1995, SUNY’s tuition has remained constant at $3400 a year, although fees have steadily risen. “Fees are sort of a backdoor, apolitical way to raise the costs,” says NYPIRG’s higher-education coordinator Miriam Kramer. In a statement faxed to the Voice, SUNY spokesman Dave Henahan touts the affordability of SUNY as compared to a select group of surrounding states, placing SUNY’s tuition-and-fees bill at the bottom of the list, but recent figures released by the U.S. Department of Education show that New York’s public college tuition ranks as the 14th most expensive in the country. Repeated phone calls to Henahan, the chancellor’s office, campus presidents’ offices, and Pataki’s campaign were not returned.

The steady cuts and lack of significant increases beyond inflationary requirements have had an impact. “Since the mid 1990s we’ve lost more than 1000 full-time faculty lines,” says Frank Maurizio, a spokesman for the United University Professions, the union that represents 27,000 of SUNY’s faculty and staff members. “We’ve lost hundreds of classes and courses throughout the system.”

Pataki has had TAP in his crosshairs since the get-go. During his first year in office, he cut $4 million from the program, and slashed one-quarter of the budget for the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which funds mostly lower-income students who can least afford SUNY. In 1997, he proposed a $175 million cut; in 1999, he proposed a $133 million cut; and this year, he sought to slash the $693 million TAP program by one-third. The legislature stopped each attempt.

Many critics see Pataki’s attacks on TAP and EOP as veiled attacks on the state’s minority students, who disproportionately rely on such programs to be able to afford college. “We’ve had to halve the number of students accepted into that program this year because of budget cuts,” says Joshua Shapiro, vice president of the student association at Binghamton.

Pataki’s appointees focused on more than just budgets. Echoing a nationwide conservative push for “educational standards,” trustee de Russy began to beat the drum in 1998 for a system-wide core curriculum — including math, science, and humanities — that would standardize SUNY’s graduation requirements. Faculty members, who consider curriculum design their turf, demanded to have a say in the new guidelines, but the trustees went ahead the next year and adopted two requirements — American history and Western civilization — that the faculty didn’t approve, and which reflected the conservative philosophies of de Russy, Randy Daniels, and other trustees.

With the failure of early attempts to privatize SUNY’s hospitals, Pataki and his appointees — especially King — have turned to what they term “public-private partnerships” in moving SUNY’s costs to the private sector. “My left eyebrow involuntarily rises when I hear the word ‘partnerships,’ ” says Assemblyman Sullivan. “Companies don’t give millions of dollars for nothing. They want something. Is that something compatible with the academic purpose of the university, or is this just going to become a training ground for these companies?”

SUNY campuses statewide have scaled new heights in the amount of private dollars secured for such public-private projects. Coca-Cola, Symbol technologies, Reuters, and IBM have all given large sums of money — some in the multimillion-dollar range — to fund research and individual projects all over the university system. “The university is faced with ever larger reductions in state funding and is forced to depend on the private sector,” says Stony Brook economics professor Michael Zweig. “The university and its resources are tied to the corporate sector and the corporate sector’s need to make money.”

Perhaps SUNY’s largest private benefactor is Computer Associates and its CEO, Wang, who in addition to funding Stony Brook’s Asian American cultural center has invested millions of dollars on Long Island’s SUNY campuses. Stony Brook, with two CA-funded business incubators, has undoubtedly benefited most from the relationship. In fact, Stony Brook president Shirley Strum Kenny served for years on CA’s board of directors until this past July, when she resigned her seat, but kept the 14,000 shares of CA stock she owned as of the company’s June quarterly report. And why wouldn’t she? Fellow CA board member and Pataki kingmaker Alfonse D’Amato has been quietly buying up more than $1 million of CA stock since it was announced in February that the federal government was conducting two separate investigations into the company’s pro forma accounting practices, prompting observers to wonder whether D’Amato’s close ties with the Bush administration allow him to invest with unusual confidence.

Kenny’s relationship with Wang is just the sort of partnership that Chancellor King is advocating. Besides, even if it turns out that CA acquired and reported its earnings in a somewhat less than honest manner, at least Stony Brook has a huge new temple to the marriage of capitalism and public higher education. Of course, the building will not house classrooms or academic departments of any kind — only cultural activities and events — but in a tight-fisted fiscal environment, where each SUNY campus fights the others for funding spoils and enrollment dollars, every little $40 million helps.

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Busking for Bucks

Busking in the subways is a time-honored tradition, with KRS-One, Patti Smith, and Lou Reed getting their start in New York’s (literal) underground music scene. Today tenacious college students in need of quick cash, publicity, and practice space carry on in their footsteps.

Kelly Buchanan, a 24-year-old Hunter College student, says she regularly makes between $50 and $80 an hour playing songs on her guitar and hawking her CDs. She even keeps a computer spreadsheet of where she plays, what time, and how much money she earns.

“It’s exhausting because you really have to be on your guard with all the weirdos and drunks,” said Buchanan. “But, you can pick your own hours and meet people.”

Making connections is what motivates D-XIFR (Decipher), an Upper Manhattan hip-hop group with members enrolled at CUNY and SUNY who take their rap to the rails. “It’s self-promotion, you know?” says 19-year-old Sergio Guerrero, a criminal justice major at CUNY. “And it’s fun.”

“Forty-deuce,” is the best station, according to 20-year-old Ravi Lambert, a music major at SUNY. Once the group spent the whole day freestyling and selling homemade T-shirts and took home $500—more than enough to cover the $65 ticket Lambert received from an undercover cop for playing his boombox on a subway car.

Lisa Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said there is “no law that says you can’t play” in subway stations. Musicians can get tickets, Schwartz said, for playing on the stairs and in cars, blocking pedestrian traffic or playing non-acoustic music.

Trombonist Max Seigel, a 24-year-old jazz student at the Manhattan School of Music, practices in subway stations for the sake of his neighbors. “It’s not really feasible to play in your apartment,” he said. “So I’d go play in the subway because there nobody cares how loud you are at three in the morning.”

Seigel says the acoustics at his usual practice platform, the 81st Street stop on the A, C, D, E lines, are “second only to Notre Dame Cathedral.” Except when a subway goes clanging by.


Each spring the MTA holds auditions for “Music Under New York,” a program sponsoring subway musicians. For information call 362-3830.

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Listings

Spartos loves to go for an after-work drink. And a second. And a third. OK. Let’s try this again: Spartos really loves to drink after work. See her sidle up to the bar and she’ll tell you there’s nothing quite like knocking back a few following a day’s toil. “I’ve uhhrrned my drink,” slurs Spartos. “What’s your excuse?”

She also loves the deals that accompany pre-sunset swilling. Good for her the happy hour at VILLAGE MA (107 MacDougal Street, 529-3808) requires only a few bucks and a short walk to Washington Square. You see, the only people who like cheap beer more than Spartos are poor NYU grad students (just don’t tell Spartos—she insists that survey was statistically flawed), and they flock to the breezy bamboo-hut bar for $3 pints of Sierra, Sam, and Bass. Spartos goads her new pals, Grad Student No. 1 (Thesis: Body Alteration in Mall Culture) and GS No. 2 (Thesis: Post-Humanist Forestry Methods), into a rollicking round of quarters, with the ulterior motive of defending her own dissertation (Thesis: Correlations Between Alcoholism and SUNY Bachelor’s Degree Holders). But before she can claim victory, the bartender interrupts with a five-minute warning that happy hour’s almost up. “7:30!” exclaims Spartos, rushing for the door. The bartender tries to lure her with another free round (he’s already comped one off the bill), but she declines, adding she’d like a rain check.

It’s no wonder then that Spartos arrives slightly staggering and full-on tardy for dinner and drinks at Mediterranean bistro JULIAN’S (802 Ninth Avenue, 262-4800). Dinner’s almost done, so Spartos opts for just, uh, drinks. And since she never tires of celebrating a day at the office or a night at the bar, she convinces her cronies to split a fizzy bottle of Moët ($55). Unfortunately, the large, airy tent and ample sidewalk seating don’t make up for the half-assed service: The waiter—definitely drunk and possibly cracked out on Special K and/or Rohypnol—mangles the pour, spilling precious drops with an “Oops! I did it again!” attitude. “To drinking on the job when it is your job!” toasts Spartos. They send him off with the request that he amp up the barely audible house music, only to have him return confused and confessing that it’d already been maxed to 10.

Now it’s Spartos’s turn to shrug, so when she receives a call from her trusty Liquid City editor, she is quick to her feet. “What? You need me to do some research at SLIVER (337B West Broadway, 226-6644)?” barks Spartos. “An alcohol emergency, you say?” She dips out on her friends—and the tab—and into a taxi headed downtown. The yearling buppie lounge—replete with white-leather sectional furniture, built-in fishbowls, and soft, red lighting—is known for its Sunday-afternoon block parties, when the neighborhood joints get so packed they overflow onto the street. But tonight there’s Trusty Editor at the bar, only on her second wet-and-wild South Beach Cooler ($9, rum, triple sec, lime juice, champagne) and already tanked to the sounds of Tweet. “What the hell happened to you?” she asks. “Yull ridall about it in thuhmornining,” replies Spartos before ordering a knockout Taboo Punch ($9, vodka, SoCo, Chambord, pineapple, cranberry), her last of the night.

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Toy Story

Candace de Russy, a conservative SUNY trustee appointed by Governor George Pataki, has made a name for herself by battling what she considers academe’s subversive elements. Now she’s identified a new threat: America’s black studies and women’s studies professors.

“These studies are divisive. They promote national disunity,” Bronxville resident de Russy tells the Voice. “How? By eroding a sense of national identity and common culture, and I strongly, strongly submit and suggest that that should give us all pause in light of September 11.”

Comments like these are why de Russy, who was appointed in 1995 to the 16-member board that governs the State University of New York, finds herself at the center of the latest in a long line of self-generated controversies. “People from every race and religion and across gender lines were impacted by this tragedy, and for her to use it as a vehicle for her right-wing agenda—which is racist—is totally obscene,” says William McAdoo, chairman of the Africana studies department at SUNY Stony Brook. Joining him in attacking de Russy is the SUNY faculty union, which, in an unprecedented resolution, voted unanimously on February 9 to condemn de Russy’s comments and demand that Pataki remove her from the board. William Scheuerman, president of the United University Professions (UUP), the union that represents 27,000 of SUNY’s faculty and staff members, calls her “an embarrassment,” and says “she’s a political liability for Pataki.” The vote, which passed without dissent among 250 faculty union delegates, followed similar comments de Russy made in a February 4 Newsday story about black studies programs. Reporter Martin Evans paraphrased her as saying most black studies departments are flabby, feel-good programs that carry an anti-American bias and do little to advance hard knowledge, calling such studies “therapeutic in nature.” She later included women’s and gay studies programs in her attack.

De Russy says that “all the hysteria that surrounds this incident” only proves that McAdoo and others have “forsaken open and reasoned debate,” claiming that her “right to speak out freely” is being squelched.

To her supporters, de Russy is a fearless defender of academic standards whose crusade to revolutionize public higher education in New York is long overdue. The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1998 called her “the standard bearer for activist trustees nationwide.” Stanley Kurtz, in a February 25 National Review Online column, said she was the victim of “a false charge of racism,” and praised her for being “a thorn in the side of the Left-leaning faculty at the SUNY system.” Zoe Romanowsky, spokeswoman for the Catholic magazine Crisis, where de Russy is a contributing editor, calls her “the kind of person who, while everyone’s standing around admiring the emperor’s new clothes, says, Look, he’s naked—why are we pretending?”

But others say she is a prudish demagogue more interested in furthering her own ideological agenda than in advocating for the university system she was appointed to represent. The most recent example of this, say her critics, is her attack on a sex-toy discussion held last month at SUNY Binghamton. It wasn’t the first time she grabbed headlines by attacking a discussion of sex at SUNY. When the women’s studies department at SUNY New Paltz hosted its 21st annual conference in November 1997, de Russy launched her first public attack against what she calls “special interest studies.” The conference, “Revolting Behavior: The Challenges of Women’s Sexual Freedom,” attracted approximately 250 students and area residents to hear discussions on topics ranging from reproductive freedom to self-defense. It also attracted de Russy and some like-minded opportunists, who, pen and pad in hand, attended a select few panels and workshops, looking for evidence of sexual depravity and immoral behavior. They found what they were looking for in two of the conference’s 21 events—a sex-toy demo and a discussion of safe s/m practices. The following weekend, a Post editorial—the first of three on the subject—labeled the conference a “tax-subsidized peep show.”

De Russy called it “a travesty of academic standards,” and swore that New Paltz president Roger Bowen would answer for defending the event on the grounds of academic freedom. “I will do whatever I can do to get him dismissed,” she vowed. This time, Pataki joined in her outrage, declaring, “This has nothing to do with freedom of speech and everything to do with the proper expenditure of tax dollars.” He asked then-chancellor John Ryan to appoint a committee to investigate the conference for a possible misuse of state funds. When the committee, which included faculty members and a former SUNY president, agreed with Bowen and concluded that the conference had everything to do with free speech and was indeed a proper expenditure of tax dollars, Pataki and Ryan backed off. But de Russy didn’t take the hint and called the report itself “a thinly veiled but nonetheless blatant effort to quash criticism.”

(Full disclosure: I published an editorial that criticized de Russy’s attacks on the New Paltz conference in The Stony Brook Press, a campus newspaper; the cover featured a photo of the trustee’s head affixed to a dominatrix’s body. After de Russy received a copy, she complained about it to the Post, arguing that the First Amendment shouldn’t apply to our student-funded public university newspaper.)

Sex was on de Russy’s mind again last month when she lambasted a “sex-toy party” at SUNY Binghamton. The event, offered during the campus’s Masturbation Awareness Month, was, according to university spokeswoman Katie Ellis, “nothing more than an informational lecture by a registered nurse on the topic of women’s health and sexuality.” De Russy again claimed to be outraged, and even though the event was funded entirely by student funds, she told the Associated Press it was “yet another case of crass and eroded campus academic and moral standards.” But Bowen, who has since resigned his post at New Paltz, questions whether she can reconcile her religious beliefs with her role as trustee. She is waging a “single-minded campaign to force campuses . . . to comply with her religious values,” he wrote in a letter published in March in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Bowen left his post last year under suspicion that he was forced out for standing up to her. “As long as I stayed at New Paltz, I was not going to be supported by Albany or by the chancellor,” he tells the Voice.)

To be sure, de Russy is a committed believer. Bowen’s letter was written in response to a piece she wrote for the Chronicle in February, wherein she argued, “True learning must also include schooling in religious doctrine.” And as a contributing editor to the hyper-conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, she has written in support of public funding for religious schools and to warn parents of the dangers posed to children by the card game “Magic: The Gathering.” Quoting various outraged parents and “experts,” she wrote, “Magic: The Gathering is steeped in the hidden language, imagery, signs and rites of at least 30 satanic cults in this country. . . . Such exercises may foster not only narcissism but a potentially lethal lack of realism about personal power.” She failed, however, to supply any statistics about the number of children who have lost their lives to the card game and its “pro-pagan agenda.”

By all accounts, her biggest victory has been her role in reforming SUNY’s core curriculum. De Russy says she’s proud of her “efforts to raise academic standards, [and] to strengthen general education” by instituting a new core (including math, humanities, and the social sciences) that every student must take in order to graduate. But even this effort was marred by controversy. Critics charged that the move took power away from the faculty members who should design such requirements. In an attempt to allay fears that the board was acting unilaterally, most of the new requirements were arrived at in consultation with faculty advisers—except Western civilization and American history, which opponents say were slipped in at the last minute.

McAdoo says that under the new guidelines, Africana studies courses, including one on the history of slavery, no longer fulfill the American history requirement. McAdoo and others stress that de Russy could also pose a potential political problem for Pataki. “You have a governor running a campaign trying to pick up support from the minority community,” says the UUP’s Scheuerman, “and you have this trustee he has appointed making statements about black studies and women’s studies.” Repeated calls to Pataki’s re-election campaign were not returned.

Capitalizing on the momentum built by the UUP’s resolution, McAdoo is hoping to put pressure on Pataki to reconsider de Russy’s appointment. “Students have been writing letters to the governor,” he says. “There are about 500 that have been sent from this campus in the past month and a half, asking for her removal and denouncing her ignorance and bigotry.” By the time SUNY’s students return to campus in September, the gubernatorial race will be in full swing, lending any anti-de Russy efforts an added sense of urgency. McAdoo will be there to welcome his students back, and also to remind them that “Pataki appointed her—he is accountable for his decisions.”

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An Albany Whitewash

Nine hours after the ballyhooed 6 a.m. arrest of City Councilman Angel Rodriguez last Thursday, New York State Inspector General Roslynn Mauskopf released the most important report of her conspicuously invisible seven-year tenure as the chief ethics investigator of the Pataki administration.

Mauskopf, who wants the job of the federal prosecutor who indicted Rodriguez, issued a 57-page analysis of the award of $800,000 in state architectural contracts to the governor’s next-door neighbor and in-law James Copeland. Though the Copeland investigation began a year ago and was completed last summer, Mauskopf did not make her findings public until her nomination to become United States Attorney for Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island—sent to the Senate by the governor and President Bush in January—was in trouble. She is trying to replace acting U.S. Attorney Alan Vinegrad, who assumed the post last June and has been so busy lately he indicted Rodriguez, Nassau County strip-cop Frank Wright, and Abner Louima cop Charles Schwarz in a single week.

One of the reasons Mauskopf’s nomination has been held up for months is her look-the-other-way reputation, as well as her cozy friendships with high-level Pataki aides, which have raised questions with Senate Judiciary Subcommittee chair Chuck Schumer, who has veto power over the appointment. She has been campaigning for the post so aggressively that she stood beside her onetime boss, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, at two recent press conferences, taking joint credit for the announced indictments—as many appearances with him as she’s done in the past six years. If the Copeland report was supposed to show how tough she could be in a probe of Pataki administration high jinks, it’s had the opposite effect.

Mauskopf’s desperate and delayed conclusions are a model of investigative avoidance.

The report concludes that Copeland got the state contracts—and he was in line for millions more—not because of his lifelong ties to the governor, but because of his friendship with two obscure officials at a State University of New York college, Old Westbury. It reduces to footnote status the alleged intervention of two top aides to the governor who may have been involved in pushing contracts for Copeland but were never questioned under oath, as virtually everyone else was. It omits any reference to the governor by name, indicating that he was never asked a question about how a tiny, inexperienced firm run by a relative wound up winning contracts that even Mauskopf concedes were fixed.

The already famous footnote says that Michael Clemente, the Pataki-appointed $194,000-a-year head of the SUNY Construction Fund, told IG investigators that he got a phone call from SUNY chair Thomas Egan, and “possibly” a second from SUNY trustee Randy Daniels, on behalf of Copeland. Egan, who is a longtime close personal friend of Pataki’s, and Daniels, the current secretary of state and rumored candidate for lieutenant governor, deny making the calls.

But Clemente, who was the deputy director of operations and worked on the second floor with the governor before taking over the Fund, testified under oath. A spokesman for Egan told the Voice, however, that Mauskopf merely asked him informally over the phone about the Clemente charge, never questioning him under oath (Daniels did not return calls). Yet Mauskopf said her investigation “found no evidence that state officials or employees outside of the Fund or SUNY Old Westbury had any involvement in the award of these contracts,” effectively concluding that neither Egan nor Daniels made the calls. Clemente, who swore they did, was fired the day the report appeared.

The report even reserves for a second footnote the deepest unsolved mystery of the Copeland caper: namely, how he managed to get parks department contracts if his only significant hooks in state government were two minor officials at Old Westbury. All Mauskopf says is that Sandra Sloane, a deputy commissioner at the Empire State Development Corporation, contacted parks officials on Copeland’s behalf. Mauskopf does not point out that Sloane was an assembly staffer who worked with Pataki for eight years, volunteered in his gubernatorial campaign in 1994, and was fully familiar with Copeland’s legion of ties to Pataki (in addition to Copeland’s brother being married to Libby Pataki’s sister, Copeland’s wife played a role in organizing the first inaugural). Saying simply that the parks contracts “are outside the scope of this report,” Mauskopf, who is charged with investigating all state agencies, just dropped the ball.

Similarly, while blaming the contracts on two Old Westbury officials who didn’t take office until mid 1998, the report makes no effort to explain why Clemente and his two top aides traveled all the way to Cold Spring in Putnam County to visit Copeland’s office way back in October 1997. Or to explain why SUNY headquarters officials rigged two contracts for him at its Maritime College in the Bronx before they ever gave him one at Old Westbury. Or why William Howell, a Pataki fundraiser and insider named to three state boards, engineered the appointment of Copeland’s friends to the Old Westbury campus. Instead Mauskopf attributes Howell’s repeated efforts to help Copeland—some of which clearly appear improper—to a kind of turf-warfare desire to “maintain influence over the course of the campus’s future development” in competition with the then college president. This kindly description flies in the face of Howell’s longtime career as a bond peddler, lobbyist, and campaign donor who’s apparently been a friend of Pataki’s since both were assembly staffers in the ’70s. The report’s narrative makes a convincing case, for example, that it was Howell who forced a highly qualified architectural firm, Gruzen Samton, to agree to give 40 percent of a $215,000 contract to Copeland, though it never spells this out in any quotable, conclusory language.

In an article published six weeks ago questioning why Mauskopf never released her findings about these contracts (“Will Schumer Stand Up?”), Copeland told the Voice that he was sure she’d abandoned the probe. He said he was grilled extensively at the governor’s office in Manhattan sometime last summer and that after the deposition, he got a call from an investigator about “minutiae.” Saying that he got “the sense they were wrapping it up” in July or August, he decided they’d found no wrongdoing “because I haven’t heard from them in so long.”

Indeed, the report itself spells out that the most explosive and potentially criminal charge—the fabrication of a document by SUNY officials, ostensibly to try to cover up the fixed award of a contract to Copeland—was also fully probed by the summer. It notes that Ellen Biggane, the SUNY executive who admitted to creating a fake document, testified way back on July 12. Even though the IG has known about this admission for nine months, she is just now referring it to the D.A. and is finally making the findings public, compelling Biggane’s belated dismissal.

It is anyone’s guess whether Mauskopf would have ever released the report were it not for her troubled candidacy for U.S. Attorney. She only launched the probe last spring because of an extraordinary investigative series by Newsday (the Post and Daily News have yet to publish a word about this scandal, ostensibly because Newsday broke it, while the Times and upstate papers are giving it major coverage).

Mauskopf is the governor’s choice to be one of the top federal prosecutors in the land. She is, sadly, a reflection of his values. She was better off when all she could be accused of was a career of omission, never making a case against a top Pataki aide. This report is an act of commission, a whitewash with the brush squarely in her own hand, visible even from Schumer’s Washington.

It will finish her always dubious nomination.


Research assistance: Annachieara Danieli, Jesse Goldstein, Martine Guerrier, Lauren Johnston, Peter G.H. Madsen, Jess Wisloski