Joseph S. Murphy considers the city ''the most important artifact human beings have created since we've inhabited this planet.'' And the highest creation within the city in recent times, he feels, is the public urban university.
As chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY), Dr. Murphy presides over America's oldest (1847) and largest (180,000 students) municipal college system. With 20 campuses throughout the five boroughs, it is the third-largest university in the US.
''City University,'' says Chancellor Murphy, ''has always seen itself as embattled, representing historically ... the aspirations of working-class people , new immigrant people, minority people, who have used it as the most tangible and the most effective vehicle of upward mobility that this country has ever seen anywhere. There is no entity that is as efficient a converter of the unacculturated to middle-class respectability as this one.''
Chancellor Murphy welcomes this reporter to an office whose scale and style are more like that of a high school principal in a well-to-do suburb than the head of a college system. Then this former director of the Peace Corps in St. Croix and Ethiopia and associate director of the now-defunct Jobs Corps discusses some of the new-old problems his school faces.
Murphy's appointment in 1982 came in the middle of the deepest economic recession since the Great Depression and amid major federal cutbacks in social and education programs, which hit hard at the urban and minority families from which most of CUNY's students come. Nonetheless, he took over in relatively favorable circumstances, considering the university's recent financial history.
The fiscal tunnel began darkening in 1975, when the Big Apple faced bankruptcy. The university was forced to charge tuition for city residents for the first time in its history. Only in the last two years, as the city began to see an end to its budgetary crisis and the state started funding its four-year campuses, have the university's finances stabilized.
The issue of whether higher education should be publicly or privately funded is generally misunderstood, Murphy contends. Regardless of whether an institution is public or private, a majority of its students receive financial aid that is funded in some way by the government. And even private institutions ''are supported very heavily with tax dollars,'' he says. ''Every dollar an alumna or alumnus gives to their institution is, for the most part, 50 percent public dollars.''
The real issue, he insists, is whether an institution is under public or private control. ''My board of directors,'' he notes, ''are appointed by democratically elected people - the mayor of the city of New York and the governor of the state of New York - and they represent more or less the values, perceptions, interests, and attitudes of the people collectively.''
Despite increased stability, Murphy sees fiscal restraints as a continuing threat to the creative solutions CUNY found to the urban problems of the late 1960s and the '70s. Economic disadvantage, racial tensions, and the need for legal services, law enforcement, city management, transportation, and urban planning and design were then and still are priority areas of study here.
In addition to devoting attention to such areas, CUNY also bears a moral obligation, in Murphy's view, to provide the poor with needed professional skills, as well as give its students an understanding of the social forces that affect their lives.
In line with its egalitarian tradition, CUNY was the first campus in the United States to have a faculty union. Drawing on his prior experience as president of Bennington College in Vermont (which was private and not unionized) for comparison, Murphy considers unionization more a plus than a minus. The experience of unionization at CUNY has taught everybody else how to do it, he says. ''After the first couple of years of strife and misunderstanding, ... (there was) a tendency to define everybody's relationship to everybody else in terms that were fairly clear and unambiguous.'' The result has been ''restraint over the occasionally willful qualities that enter'' into relations between administration and faculty.
One area where CUNY has been under attack by critics and former alumni is its lowering of admission standards in a rush to be egalitarian. More than 20 percent of the students who enter the system need remedial help in math and English. Murphy takes strong exception to the attacks, however. Rather than seeing the lowered barriers as a fault, he lauds the university's effort to make itself accessible to all the city's residents.
''The notion of (academic) accountability is a little bit like blaming the victim,'' he says. ''We don't give support to education, even in nonfinancial terms, and..., and then we blame (the students) for not doing very well.''
Murphy would match the top 20,000 students at CUNY against the Harvard student body any day. ''I suspect that we have a half dozen potential Nobel Prize-winners in our university right now,'' he says. (So far in CUNY'S history there have been eight, Henry Kissinger being the most illustrious.)
One aspect of Murphy's tenure he finds especially gratifying is a major effort to provide day care for the single parents who are students. It is ''imperative'' to take into account that there are substantial numbers of unmarried mothers in New York, he says. ''We want to get them off welfare and into productive jobs. They have to go to school, and in order to get them to go to school they have to have a place to put their babies. And we can't charge them private day-care-center rates to do it. Who can quarrel with that?'' It's part of being an urban public university.