Community College Innovator Janet Lieberman Dies at 97

Educational innovator Dr. Janet E. Lieberman, who helped integrate immigrants and struggling high school students into two- and four-year degree programs at LaGuardia Community College, died on March 19 at the age of 97.

According to her son, Dr. Randolph Hugh Chase, the cause of death was due to pneumonia.

Lieberman was present when Community College No. 9, the college’s original name, had its name changed in honor of Fiorello H. La Guardia, a New York mayor from 1934 to 1945.

In addition to assisting in developing the mission of the community college — which now annually serves around 45,000 students from 150 countries — she also created partnerships with other educational institutions to recruit high school students who were struggling academically, those who had to work several jobs while taking classes or those who could not afford a four-year degree, according to The New York Times.

“Janet had a strong feeling that we in education were snobs and our bar was too low, and that race and class were factors in that,” said Richard K. Lieberman (no relation), a LaGuardia history professor and director of the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, a source of mayoral and other municipal records that Janet helped create. “She knew that if we raised the bar, the students would come up to meet it.”

Lieberman earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Barnard College in 1943, a master’s degree from the City College of New York and a doctorate in educational psychology from New York University. Before she joined the LaGuardia faculty, she worked as a public school psychologist, teaching education and reading at Hunter College.

Throughout her time at LaGuardia, she established the Middle College High School at LaGuardia, with support from the Ford Foundation and later founded the International High School on LaGuardia’s campus for new immigrants with limited knowledge of English to attend.

Lieberman served as associate dean of the faculty and retired in 1991 as Professor Emerita in LaGuardia’s Department of Social Science, but remained serving as special assistant to the president until 2000.

In 1989 she was the recipient of the Charles A. Dana Award for Pioneering Achievement in Higher Education and was honored with the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Higher Education in 2004.

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