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Michael Miller

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By Michael Miller
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The Lost Colleges Of Mitchel Field

Bombers, fighters, lots of C-119 “Flying Boxcars” and other military aircraft were still rumbling along Mitchel Field’s long runways when the first four-year college was established there.

In 1957, Mitchel College was created by Long Island University in partnership with the Air Force, the first resident college on a military base. It offered bachelor’s and associate’s degrees to active and retired military personnel, reservists, civilian defense workers and their dependents in an accelerated night program (five semesters a year). Several years after the base was formally closed, there were still 1,200 people taking classes in converted barracks, working toward degrees in liberal arts, business, engineering and science. In 1964, Mitchel College was stripped of its degree-granting status when state investigators decided the library was too small and it had too many part-time faculty members. It closed completely in 1965 when LIU decided not to make the expensive needed upgrades.

Mitchel College faded just as the heaviest hitters in politics, commerce, industry and education became enmeshed in a tug of war over the old base and hundreds of additional acres of adjacent land. Mitchel Field was the last, best hope to create some kind of coordinated county centre, providing an economic and civic focal point to hundreds of loosely connected housing developments and shopping areas. 1964-1965 also was the year that high school seniors born in the post-war boom years were going to start graduating from high school. The number of places in colleges across New York and Long Island had to significantly increase, especially at four-year institutions.

Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the Board of Regents and the SUNY Trustees insisted that at least one new four-year college be built in Nassau County, and probably a second community college, and fast.

And so the Mitchel Field Land Run of 1964 and 1965 commenced.

County Executive Eugene Nickerson and the county legislature were in rare, unanimous agreement that Nassau Community College, holding classes in subdivided airplane hangers, would have a grand new campus and would be expanded into a four-year liberal arts college. Assembly Speaker and Nassau County Republican Leader Joseph Carlino one-upped Nickerson and blind-sided everyone with his announcement that there would be a liberal arts college in Mitchel Field in addition to NCC, and that he’d inserted the seed money into the state budget. State engineers were already lurking and surveying out there in the tall grass. Long Island University wanted more land for its new law school. None of these things happened, even though at some point it looked like each one would.

In 1960, Congress had appropriated $20 million to build a Veterans Administration hospital on Long Island, but it was VA policy that its hospitals be sited near medical colleges. When the state picked Stony Brook as the site of its Long Island medical college, the VA picked a site nearby for its 1,000-bed hospital.

Northport wasn’t very accessible, and there were more than three times as many veterans in Nassau County than in Suffolk. Understandably, everyone in Nassau County lined up on all political fronts to pressure the state to move the medical school and the VA to move the hospital to Mitchel Field. The public vitriol was highly unusual for 1965. Suffolk County Executive Lee Dennison told Nassau politicians to “stay the hell out of Suffolk County.”

The campuses of Hofstra University and Nassau Community College were constructed with public investment and public credit, and they have paid off handsomely for the people of Nassau County. Had it not been for partisan maneuvers, personality scrapes and half measures from half a century ago, all forgotten in time, we might have had the kind of high level technology-research-medical complex that we’re always told should be Long Island’s future.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net