Winter 1995
Open Admissions

To the editor:
Heather Mac Donald ["Downward Mobility," Summer 1994] asserts that the City University’s remedial function has come to dominate the university, lowering the value of a senior college degree. At the same time she attacks CUNY for its low graduation rates. This seems contradictory. Everyone agrees that the graduation rate is lower than it should be. Yet this is the clearest refutation of the idea that open admissions has destroyed academic standards. The graduation rate is low in part because we do not simply pass students along.

Further, re-mediation does not dominate college life, at least so far as I can see at Hunter College. Most entering freshmen need remedial work, but entering freshmen are not representative of Hunter students: Hunter accepts a huge number of transfers, and many of the leastprepared freshmen wash out early. Remedial work accounts for less than 6 percent of seats in undergraduate Hunter classes.

Ms. Mac Donald raises important issues, but the impression she gives is out of balance. For my students, such a portrayal is truly dangerous. The "value" of a degree is set in a "market." If employers and graduate schools perceive a CUNY education as inferior, its value is lessened, regardless of what I do in the classroom.

I disagree that a liberal arts education is inappropriate for average New York City high school graduates, who might be better off at "airconditioning school." Call me oldfashioned, but I do not think college should be about vocational trainingit should be about creating broadly educated, culturally literate adults.

Philip Kasinitz
Professor of Sociology
Hunter College
New York, N.Y.

To the editor:
That CUNY’s standards have plummeted is common knowledge. The faculty I know are quite aware of it. Privately they talk about students at the very edge of literacy, unable to understand much of what they read, unable to write coherentlynot all students, of course, but many.

When I went to City College in the forties, it was a quite different place. It had available a very large group of applicants, most the children of poor, Jewish, educationobsessed parents. The college could choose from among the best of them, and it did so. It was a stark, simple meritocracy.

City was not a great teaching college. Too often the instruction was routine, the teacher merely going through the motions. Nor were its students paragons of character and scholarship. Some—I include myself—were intellectual roughnecks, eager to show how smart they were by crushing others, including their teachers when necessary. Some were utterly without curiosity or a sense of fancy.

But when the right mix of intelligence and intellectual excitement took place, there was nothing quite like it. One of my classmates was engrossed in a close study of the transcripts of the Moscow trials, indexing all of their lies. Another was absorbed in a translation of Finnegan’s Wake, then just published. And so on. Ah, those were the days.

Joseph Adelson
Professor of Psychology
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Mich.

To the editor:
As a 1987 graduate of Hunter College, I found Ms. Mac Donald’s article distressingly all too accurate. Because CUNY has defined minimum educational standards down through open admissions and similar misguided policies, there has been severe harm to its reputation and to the thousands of hardworking CUNY students, who learn after graduation that their degrees are not respected by prospective employers and graduate schools.

Because Hunter continues to have a large number of well-qualified and even prominent professors, one can still get an excellent education. (I believe that this is also the case at some other CUNY colleges.) However, the shrinking reputation of CUNY belies the quality of education available, causing only harm to its Students and graduates.

Daniel O’Neill
Woodside, N.Y.

To the editor:
Ms. Mac Donald quotes me as saying: "What black kids want is to get out of the ghetto, so we should figure out what they are qualified for. If that turns out to be airconditioning school, we should give them that opportunity." I would have hoped that no reader would interpret this to mean anything as moronic as that airconditioning repair is the most that any black person could reasonably aspire to. However, it is necessary to clarify beyond the possibility of misunderstanding.

In the late sixties there was wide agreement that the educational system should do for each individual whatever would best facilitate his upward mobility. For high school graduates whose abilities and education rendered college appropriate—and there were a good number—resources would be spent to get a college education. Those students who clearly suffered an educational deprivation would be supported in whatever way was necessary to enable them to attain that which they could realistically attain—in my example, air-conditioning repair expertise, which, incidentally, requires above—average intelligence and earns aboveaverage income.

Some derided this "tracking"; in the end, opponents won. The price for this victory has been yet another failure imposed on students who could have had the opportunity to gain a skill, enter the middle class, and spare their children from the disadvantages they had suffered.

Steven Goldberg
Department of Sociology
City College
New York, N.Y.

To the editor:
Many of CUNY’s entering students require instruction from specialists in English as a second language (ESL) and English as a second dialect (ESD). Forty percent of CUNY students come from nonEnglishspeaking households; if we add to this figure the Students who speak a dialect of English at home, as many as threequarters of entering CUNY students need ESL or ESD instruction.

Ms. Mac Donald is comparing apples and oranges: CUNY’s challenge is today’s city population, not 1954’s. New immigrants come with new backgrounds, and it is the City University’s mission to meet the needs of its population.

Open admissions is not a "failed policy" but a failure properly to execute a policy, specifically in the ESL/ESD area. Many critics lump ESL and ESD students together as if they represent a single type—the inadequately prepared student who needs re-mediation. But both groups embrace a wide variety of states of academic preparedness.

The teachers of ESL and ESD do have some things in common. Both have training in methodology and language that is radically different from that of most English teachers. Above all, they have been trained in socio-cultural, gender, and ethnic studies and have a special sensitivity to the needs of language and dialect minority students.

Some CUNY colleges appear to be doing their best to ignore ESL and ESD students. This lack of commitment is compounded by scarcity of funding for what the enemies of open admissions call "remedial" instructiona scarcity that affects ESL and ESD students throughout the university.

Effie Papatzikou Cochran
Assistant Professor
Baruch College
New York, N.Y.

Heather Mac Donald responds: CUNY’s high dropout rate suggests only that its admissions standards are even lower than its academic standards. It says nothing about whether those academic standards are themselves objectively high. The original premise of open admissionsthat high standards could be maintained alongside radically loosened entrance requirementshas proved false. Nearly all the professors I spoke to admitted to having drastically lowered their definition of college performance.

It is that redefinition, not anything journalists may write about CUNY, that has set the value of CUNY’s degree in the marketplace. As Mr. ONeill suggests, employers reached their own conclusions about open admissions before City journal did.

I do not dispute that there are a great many hardworking and talented students throughout CUNY. Many make Herculean efforts to attend college. Such students are not well served, however, by a university system that devotes significant resources to teaching what should have been learned in grammar and high school. The SEEK program exemplifies the skewed priorities of CUNY’s senior colleges. To set aside one in ten senior college spots and spend at least $14.3 million annually on students whose graduation rate is 13 percent defies all common sense. Under any realistic evaluation of their skills, SEEK students would be directed toward community college, vocational training, or adult education; that they are not suggests how large a role politics continues to play in the administration of the university.

Professors Kasinitz and Cochran both argue that the remedial function at CUNY is slightindeed, according to Professor Cochran, too slight. I disagree. In addition to the numerous courses offered by the ubiquitous departments of remedial education, counseling and tutoring centers are springing up across the university. CUNY continues to create new programs to stanch the flow of unprepared students out of the university: for example, it spends $5.4 million annually to try to decrease the onethird dropout rate of first-year students, and it has established summer and winter coaching sessions for students likely to fail their reading, writing, and math entrance exams.

Such largescale efforts to bring unprepared students up to speed have characterized CUNY’s response to open admissions from the start. Professor Cochran’s view that the failure of open admissions results from inadequate resources is therefore unpersuasive. There is no reason to believe that increasing the budget for remedial programs would be money well spent. Indeed, some state university systems are cutting back on

remedial education, having concluded that using college to try to teach someone to read for the 13th time is inefficient. A more rational approach would channel the resources CUNY spends teaching basic skills to elementary and high schools, where the effort has a greater chance of success.

ESL students do present a different set of questions than do "English as a second dialect" students, as Professor Cochran calls native Englishspeakers who cannot read or write at the college level. The remedial industry at CUNY sprang up in response to the influx of unprepared Americanborn students, not nonnative speakers. Indeed, if CUNY’s main problem were educating immigrants who already know how to read and write in their native language, its remedial departments would look quite different.

The ideal of the liberal arts education, which Professor Kasinitz rightly praises, will more likely be realized if CUNY evaluates which students possess the requisite skills. To define the mission of CUNY’s senior colleges, as Professor Cochran does, as "meeting the needs" of all the city’s high school graduates risks watering down the liberal arts and turning education into therapy. It’s simply not true that every high school graduate is prepared to benefit from college. Better to restore rigorous standards at the senior colleges and use the community colleges for remedial work. Finally, making vocational training more available to students without advanced academic skills, as Professor Goldberg recommends, implies no judgment about the abilities of New York’s graduates as a whole.

Where to Cut the Board of Ed

To the editor:
Edward Costikyan ["Breaking Up the Board of Ed," Autumn 19941 identifies wasteful bureaucracies within the New York City school system but then states: "Stripping away unneeded centralized functions...would take years of struggle, conflict, and infighting." Would it take years to eliminate a bureaucracy? I imagine that it would grind to a halt immediately if its funding ceased. Let me, as a guidance counselor, former teacher, and 30year habitué of the system, offer three suggestions.

The labyrinthine Bureau of Supplies should be immediately eliminated. The prices it obtains are higher than what could be negotiated with discount stores, to say nothing of the monthslong wait for delivery. Every principal should be assigned a supply budget and be allowed, in conjunction with staff and parents, to set priorities and negotiate contracts.

The bureau that supplies school meals should be drastically cut back. It maintains some 30 offices in districts, staffed with clerks, supervisors, and auditors. Parents must fill out detailed financial forms, which school staff evaluate and district offices doublecheck, to determine their children’s eligibility. This bureaucracy costs at least as much as the delivery and preparation of the meals themselves. Since some 80 percent of students are eligible for free meals, simply allowing them to everyone would bring huge savings.

The Bureau of Pupil Transportation should also be eliminated. At present, students receive monthly transportation cards, their fares determined by the distance from school, with a large majority eligible for free transportation. It would be easier and cheaper to permit all students to use public transportation free for two hours before and after school upon presentation of their school ID or program card.

The major cause of the dysfunction that so disturbs Mr. Costikyan and many others is the entrenched and entangling bureaucracies: the New York City school system has the highest ratio of nonteaching to teaching personnel of any system in the country. Cutting these bureaucracies is the place to begin. Once this has been accomplished, one could better consider basic structural reform.

Frederic Wile
New York, N.Y.

Hitting the Brakes

To the editor:
I have read Julia Vitullo-Martin’s article ["Quiet, Please, " Autumn 19941. We at the Department of Sanitation fully understand citizens’ frustration over the "astounding amount of New York’s noise problem" caused by garbage truck brakes and its effect on the city’s quality of life. Indeed, for four years, the brakenoise problem has been a high priority for the department’s maintenance force.

The problem, however, was magnified by the federal government’s ban on the manufacture of asbestos brake linings. Much of the brake noise is due to the use of substitute materials for the quieter asbestos. Over the past three years, we have investigated 46 different solutions, using a variety of materials, in an attempt to reduce brake noise. Thus far, only two brake linings have proved effective in reducing noise in the short term. The result of longterm usage is still a question. But New Yorkers should know that we are doing all we can to solve this annoyance as quickly as possible.

John J. Doherty
Commissioner of Sanitation
New York, N.Y.