City Journal Summer 2014

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Peter Wood
Big Man on Campus Comes to City Hall « Back to Story

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Most of us can give thanks that at least we are not on salary to mislead people.

Sucks to be you, Michael Arena.
"Big Man on Campus Comes to City Hall" by Peter Wood (14 Nov. 2013) is inaccurate when it states that Mayor Bloomberg conceived of CUNY's Pathways general education framework. Unfortunately, the writer did not check with CUNY. Former Chancellor Matthew Goldstein proposed Pathways to CUNY's Board of Trustees in 2011. This was in response to long-standing problems with students equitably transferring credits among the University's senior and community colleges, and to invigorate curricular requirements by enhancing student choice and introducing general education learning outcome measurements. The writer omitted that Pathways saves students time and money, hastens graduation without exhausting financial aid eligibility, and increases course quality. Hundreds of faculty members helped develop the new credit-transfer framework, incorporated the higher academic standards they designed, and approved more than 2,000 new general education courses to meet the new University-wide requirements.

Although Mr. Wood focuses on the CUNY of 1969, he virtually ignores CUNY reforms in the past 14 years that have attracted a record number of high academic achievers and produced a bumper crop of award-winners of highly competitive national scholarships. He writes that "CUNY is directly under the Mayor's control." Actually, CUNY's Board of Trustees is comprised of 10 members appointed by the governor and five appointed by the mayor, plus student and faculty representatives. New York City contributes 10 percent of CUNY's budget, mostly to community colleges -- and gets a superb return on its investment given that over 90% of the graduates remain or work in New York. CUNY receives the bulk of its operating support from the State, including for its senior colleges, professional schools and community colleges.

On Pathways, William G. Bowen, the former president of both The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University, noted: "[T]he system-wide emphasis on both fundamentals and flexible areas defined by rigorous learning outcomes marks Pathways as a truly momentous step forward for CUNY's dual missions of access and excellence." Mayor Bloomberg deserves much credit for many accomplishments, but Pathways is a CUNY-initiated reform.

Michael Arena
University Director for Communications
The City University of New York
I'm grateful to Mr. Arena for adding some details to my account of CUNY's Pathways program and for providing a tidy summary of the official story. I did not imagine that Mayor Bloomberg crafted the details of Pathways. He is a man who delegates. Apparently the teachers' union at CUNY continues to believe that the driving force behind Pathways is the mayor's office. That's why the membership has turned to Mayor-elect de Blasio in an effort to curtail Pathways.

The idea that former Chancellor Matthew Goldstein proposed Pathways out of altruistic concern for the students who ran into difficulty when trying to transfer their CUNY community college credits to CUNY's senior colleges has been part of the storyline from the start. I have spoken to many CUNY faculty members and have yet to find one who takes this story as anything more than pleasant humbug. Yes, credit transfer is what Pathways is mainly about, but was credit transfer a problem? The reason that students had difficulty transferring their credits is that passing grades in the community college courses seldom provided reliable evidence that the students had mastered the material at the level required of all the students in the senior colleges.

This need not be blamed on the students. Generally they were (and still are) passed through the New York Public Schools and the CUNY community colleges with false assurances that they are achieving at a reasonably high standard of academic performance. It is easy to sympathize with their indignation when they discover they were victims of systematic misrepresentation. But it is not so easy to sympathize with Chancellor Goldstein's solution, which was essentially to lower the academic standards of the senior colleges. The proliferation of new "general education courses" (2,000) notwithstanding, Pathways lowers standards.

Mr. Arena gives a second reason for Goldstein's advocacy of Pathways: "to invigorate curricular requirements by enhancing student choice and introducing general education learning outcome measurements." That's boldness for you. It takes a University Director of Communications to describe the filleting of academic requirements as "invigorating" them. "Enhancing student choice" is a euphemism for garroting requirements in favor of loose electives. "General learning outcome measurements" essentially means covering your tracks with the snow. The snow in this case consists of fanciful documentation of "learning outcomes" aimed at showing that students have learned something—and no doubt they have.

Mr. Arena's puffery about how well CUNY students have done academically in recent years just reinforces what I originally wrote. CUNY recovered, slowly and painfully, from the disastrous 1969 decision to adopt open admissions. The success of the senior colleges with their strict admissions standards testifies to that. That success, however, has been jeopardized by Pathways.

Mr. Arena provides an accurate summary of the arrangements by which CUNY's board is officially appointed. I doubt that any informed observer believes that the official arrangements vitiate my statement that "CUNY is directly under the Mayor's control." The way things appear on paper is seldom a match for the way things are, especially in New York City.

The endorsement of Pathways by William G. Bowen is a nice touch. Dr. Bowen, let us say, has made his career by being a soft touch for anything that involves affirmative action or racial preferences. He has been consistent over a long career in his willingness to sacrifice academic standards to advance his particular view of racial justice. His endorsement of Pathways indeed speaks volumes, but not the ones that Mr. Arena had in mind.
I am not 'hostile to your institution'. I merely note that the education program therein is ill adapted to your clientele and surmise the reason for that is that you lack potential clientele within the catchment from which you draw them. I am not comparing the CUNY colleges in question to anything rarefied. I am comparing them with the most laconic of the baccalaureate colleges of the State University of New York system. When you have 20% completing their studies in four years, I do not think you have a fantastically high bar. The implication of that as a bar is that about 30% of CUNY's nominal enrollment is to be found in troubled institution, and that those youths might be better advised to be doing something else with their time.

We need to improve our secondary schools and have community colleges as a reserve for older people to learn things useful to them which they did not learn between the ages of 13 and 18 - things both academic and vocational. We do not need to be processing an ever escalating number of the young though full bore tertiary schooling (most particularly if it means larding them with debt).

What's higher education best at? Sad to say, but in our time the answer to that is that it provides salaried employment to those most antagonistic to the idea of working in business or the military or the hierarchical civil service.
I am a bit shocked by the degree of hostility in the comments to CUNY, and specifically my institution, City College. Undeniably CCNY went through bad times, but the level, at least in science and engineering, has well recovered. The only way to maintain this level, given the student population, is to allow a higher loss rate: students actually fail at CCNY, in significant numbers, unlike the more expensive private institutions. And even good students from our student population are frequently in personal situations that do not allow them to concentrate on the 16 credit per semester they would have to complete to graduate in four years. Our four-year graduation rate is low, but saying we `should be closed or reconstituted as community colleges' (comment by Art Deco) totally misses the point. The four-year graduation rate might be raised by a few points, e.g. by raising the entrance requirements further (the school of engineering has already separate entrance requirements), but the four-year rates are hardly the most serious problem we are facing. And although we are permanently short of money, I think that more money isn't the most important support we need.
I believe the Pathways reform was a bad idea, even if it probably was well-intentioned, because it mistook the university for a kind of supermarket, in which the manager can order what goods will be offered and rearrange them at his pleasure. More understanding for the nature of the university before the next big reform is announced would help, more than money poured in to fuel that next reform.
After reading this, good luck, NYC, you are going to need it.
"I am a free market economist by training, but 4.4% tax is not outrageous. "

It is if the additional increment goes to boondoggles like pre-school programs (see Head Start wheel spinning) or to bon bons for Local 1199 et al.
Of the CUNY baccalaureate colleges, none can report that more than 34% of their enrolled students complete said degree on a four year timetable. (The champion is Baruch College). With regard to that completion metric, the lower bound for the State University of New York's colleges is found at the College at Old Westbury and the Buffalo State Colleges, with rates of 21% and 22% respectively. Among the CUNY colleges, the rate for York College, the College of Technology, and City College stands at 3%, 5%, and 7% respectively. Medgar Evers College refuses to report theirs. Those for Lehman College and Hunter College are 14% and 19% respectively. Just bringing CUNY colleges up to the baseline performance of SUNY colleges would require that the bar be raised at Lehman College to effect an enrollment cut of a third and that Medgar Evars College, York College, and City College either be reconstituted as community colleges or closed. The College of Technology was founded as a community college and might do well to re-asquire that status.

Mo' money is not going to help. You simply do not have the clientele to sustain these institutions.
With politicians like De Blasio, NYC may soon go the way of Detroit. Liberal mayors destroyed that once booming industrial Michigan city that stood out as an example of American ingenuity and entrepreneurism. Look at it today! Nothing left but hollowed out buildings and dilapidated storefronts. It became the crime capital of the country until large segments of the population ran away in fear, leaving few victims behind to keep that status. Sadly, New Yorkers may soon be leaving for many of the same reasons.
Whatever merits or demerits this story may have otherwise, to suggest that the date of de Blasio's master's degree is "hard to pin down" is absolutely absurd. He graduated in 1987 -- a fact Columbia University will confirm for any reporter who bothers to contact them.
More money for CUNY? CUNY is a Tammany Hall patronage dumping ground. It ought to have an independent board. Til then the money suck will never end.
mr. deblasio is a combination of obama and dinkins rolled up together. fasten your seatbelts.
I'm a fan of the old adage that a people gets the government it deserves. NY elected de Blasio. He was clear enough on where he stood, and he will now (attempt to) govern. Of course it will be a disaster, but, for most New Yorkers, it will be a voluntary one.
I woudl like to say that increasing the tax rate from 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent is outrageous for the rich, surely the fairest way is to increase sales tax, a suitably regressive tax to hit the poor.

Some on even 5% is not socialism, especially when most rich are incorporated and hold assets in trusts etc and will be able to deduct amounts the median wage earner does get after his or her net wages if sales tax and property taxes are included.

I am a free market economist by training, but 4.4% tax is not outrageous. To often the West is turning into a plutocracy, and the rich plutocrats don't want to pay anythign while being able to game the low interest rates in hugely profitable margin loans on the stock market.

I worked in London Colleges that were inspected for quality, in one college I worked in (in junior management). The review came back as slightly above average for the teaching and below average for the senior management. What did the insopectorate do when they found management lacking in a large number of colleges, they dropped the review of senior management.

To paraphrase confucius "when a government works well it shoud be ashamed of its poor, when it works badly it should be ashamed of its rich".

As the rich get richer we are in danger of creating a plutocracy that would make even King George envious.
"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

-- H. L. Mencken
I was at CCNY in 1969 and saw it crumble to the neo-fascist racists. You are 1000% correct.
Echoes of John Lindsay's administration whereby New York became Zoo York, a by-word for urban filth, crime, and bloated disinterested city unions who padded their pensions while the city slid into grimy anarchy.

At least this time no one can say we weren't warned.
I'm no fan of socialism, and I definitely would not have voted for DeBlasio if I was a resident of NYC. But I must say that his ideas re "direct elections of students to student government, putting a student on the board of trustees, and [most importantly] getting the university administration to 'release financial information to justify planned tuition hikes'" all sound like reasonable proposals to me. Granted, the elite who run our country's colleges and universities won't appreciate having a student present to hear what the trustees are planning. Nor will most college and university officials agree to publicize financial information before embarking on tuition rate hikes. But in light of the pathetic (not to mention expensive) state of our nation's colleges and universities, it seems past time for college and university officials to be held more accountable and answerable for their decisionmaking. Bill DeBlasio may very well be a flop for NYC (though the citizens of that city deserve the government they vote for), but at least his ideas regarding college and university governing make sense. The officials have, so far, done a rather poor job administering. Perhaps they could use a little help, even if such help comes in the form of a boot to their backsides. Wealth and connections do not always equal intelligence, let alone wisdom.