CUNY Under Attack

CUNY Under Attack

The politics of America’s largest urban university have entered a restless, disordered, tumultuous period, a violent whirlpool from which it seems unable to extricate itself.


The politics of America’s largest urban university have entered a restless, disordered, tumultuous period, a violent whirlpool from which it seems unable to extricate itself. With some 200,000 degree-seeking students, the eighteen-campus City University of New York has often been a focus of debates on urban public higher education. It was CUNY, after all, that led the nation in expanding access to higher education for the poor and for members of diverse racial and ethnic groups when its “open admissions” policy was introduced almost thirty years ago.

Last year, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appointed a seven-member Advisory Task Force to investigate CUNY. It was headed by Benno Schmidt Jr., former president of Yale and chairman of the Edison Project, a for-profit enterprise that operates elementary and secondary schools. The mayor loaded the rest of the group with close associates, including Herman Badillo, the mayor’s unpaid education adviser, vice chairman of the CUNY board and Republican mayoral candidate; Richard Schwartz, former policy chief in the mayor’s office; Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank; and Richard Roberts, the city’s housing commissioner. Some city employees were on loan as staff, and the task force apparently spent $600,000 on consultants.

When the task force released its final report, “An Institution Adrift,” on June 7, the front page of the Daily News screamed, “F for CUNY.” The report judged the New York City public school system a failure, but it primarily blamed the students for not achieving more and CUNY for not being sufficiently engaged with the city’s public schools. And it reaffirmed CUNY’s new policy, scheduled to take effect precipitately next January, of eliminating remediation at its four-year senior colleges. This move would reduce the percentage of CUNY freshmen attending the four-year colleges from 37 percent to only 20 percent, swamping its community colleges and decreasing the likelihood that CUNY students–nearly half of whom were born outside the United States–will complete bachelor’s degrees.

The task force would dismantle CUNY’s historic commitment, mandated by state law, to serve New Yorkers by maintaining academic excellence and providing “equal access and opportunity for students…from all ethnic and racial groups and from both sexes.” The report repudiates an idea that has long been considered self-evident: Unless and until big-city school systems–not just in New York–are able to achieve their stated goals, remediation is a sound public investment, even for those who do not finish their degrees.

The report also set out an administrative agenda: a more efficient, better-led university system, including more rational processes for planning and budgeting. While this resonated with many observers, others remain concerned about overcentralization and micromanagement by CUNY trustees and central administrators. Behind this concern is the unprecedented politicization of the CUNY board and the nearly two-year failure to appoint a permanent chancellor, the system’s chief executive, after the governor and the mayor rejected all three finalists proposed by the board’s search committee.

Somehow the report failed to deal at any length with the two most important issues facing CUNY today. First is underfunding. Only one of the fifty states spends less on its public colleges and universities than it spent a decade ago–New York. Disinvestment has had its consequences. Despite essentially stable enrollments, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of full-time faculty members. From 1976 to 1996, the number of full-time faculty was cut in half and replaced by part-time, adjunct faculty.

Second, the report lacked a larger perspective about the changing environment surrounding higher education. The importance of technological change, the issue of whether to build learning partnerships with employers, the need to apply university expertise to help solve city problems were ignored. Moreover, with its fixation on achieving high four-year, full-time student graduation rates, the task force overlooked the increasingly lifelong nature of higher education: CUNY has some 200,000 degree students, but it also has another 150,000 nondegree, continuing-education students.

Governor George Pataki and Mayor Giuliani rarely get along on anything. CUNY is the exception. Both welcomed the task force report, and the governor has appointed Badillo as the new CUNY board chairman and nominated Schmidt as vice chairman. They also designated new CUNY board members close to them: Pataki nominated one of his executive assistants; Giuliani, his former deputy mayor. With both the mayor and the governor eyeing higher office, external politics is driving policy at the bellwether of urban higher education as never before, threatening its ability to fulfill its critical mission: to integrate the city’s poor and its immigrant populations into the economic and social fabric of New York.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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