Harold O. Levy ’74 J.D. ’79, former Cornell student trustee, chancellor of New York City Public Schools, progressive firebrand, and a member of The Sun’s editorial board, died last Tuesday after a bout with Lou Gehrig’s disease. As we look back on Levy’s life, we should take inspiration from the causes he championed while at Cornell and afterward: women’s rights, transparency, the rights of underrepresented communities, and the belief that everyone, regardless of background, deserves a high-class education. A champion for progress and a voice for the voiceless, Harold Levy was the best a Sunnie, and a Cornellian, could be.
At Cornell, Levy served in a multitude of leadership roles, first in the University Senate, and then as one of four undergraduates on the Board of Trustees. (If only undergraduates were as well-represented on the board today.) From the beginning, Levy advocated against what he viewed as a deeply flawed Cornell judicial system, one in which students were treated like criminals and faced structural disadvantages in their cases. In a 1971 column, Levy derided the system as an “outrageous sham,” and in 1973, after a landmark Hearing Board decision, he celebrated the end of “the days when all-white judicial boards found black defendants guilty in absentia,” among other inequities.
As a member of the University Senate and later as a trustee, Levy was a strong proponent of improved student housing. When 69 students found themselves without housing at the beginning of the 1972 school year, Levy pushed for them to be housed in the Statler Hotel until permanent accommodations could be found. And when Cornell came under fire from the federal government for discriminatory housing assignments, it was Levy who pushed an amendment that would end de facto segregation in Cornell housing. Much like his successor Annie O’Toole J.D. ’16 did 40 years later, Levy proposed the creation of a free legal service for Cornell students, the “Office of the University Advocate.” (This was a good idea 40 years ago, and it is a good idea today.)
Levy was unafraid to stand up to powerful interests on campus. As a trustee, in a display of conviction no longer seen often on the Hill, he took a public stance against the rest of the Board on the issue of investing in apartheid South Africa, and as a law student threatened to sue the Board unless it opened its meetings to students. Though a member of Quill and Dagger, Cornell’s regressive senior honor society, he publicly castigated that organization’s reluctance to admit women, telling The Sun in 1974, “You don’t put up to a vote somebody else’s rights.”
Later in his career, as Chancellor of New York Public Schools, Levy pressed Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg to expand the city’s school system, raise teachers’ wages, and create new opportunities for specialized education for “thousands of minority students who might not otherwise had access,” according to the New York Times.
We need more people like Harold Levy — people who use their power and leverage to make the world a better place not for themselves, but for others. May his memory be a blessing.