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CUNY Could Be Great Again
The sixties turned the once-proud City University into a backwater of remediation and race politics. Time to change its course.
Winter 1998

Anyone who doubts the destructive force of the 1960s should visit the City University of New York. Once a loose aggregate of elite colleges for the ambitious poor, it is now a bloated bureaucracy that jettisoned academic standards in the face of a flood of ill-prepared students. CUNY all but perfected the dismaying 1960s spectacle of educated adults cowering before know-nothing adolescents and outside agitators. In 1969 the CUNY administration, unwilling to defend the idea of higher education as a privilege earned by hard work, capitulated to violent student demands that the university be open to all. It radically lowered admission standards at the university's flagship liberal arts schools—City College, Hunter, Brooklyn College, and Queens College—and dropped them entirely for the community colleges. An academic tradition that had taken a century to create was torn down, in all but a few precious enclaves, in a few years.

Race politics altered the very shape of the university. Then-mayor John Lindsay, viewing higher education as just another tool of racial pacification, authorized a college construction campaign in minority neighborhoods. CUNY created such schools as Medgar Evers College and Hostos Community College as offerings to black and Puerto Rican nationalism. No one seriously argued that there was a huge pool of college-prepared students in those or other neighborhoods unable to find a place in a college. CUNY overbuilt—ten new campuses rose between 1963 and 1971—and set the stage for the fiscal crises that plague it to this day.

Faced with an onslaught of barely literate students, CUNY established tenured departments of remediation and new majors requiring virtually no knowledge of literature or history. Some of the new colleges and departments immediately set about propagating the racial ideology that gave them birth. Medgar Evers's education school, for example, recently provided a video for the city's elementary schools called "A Celebration of Blackness." It addressed the questions: "How did Africans build the pyramids? How did a people go from the pyramids to the projects? Why are some people racists? Why do you know more about Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr. than you do about Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, and Louis Farrakhan?"

While some ill-prepared students succeeded in eventually learning to read and write, many others never emerged from the remedial trap. The academic excuse industry began arguing that it was unfair to hold back skill-deficient students from higher-level classes, and besides, who's really to say what constitutes a grammatical sentence? Soon, remedial professors were pushing students out of remedial courses, ready or not, and professors in college-level courses found themselves teaching students who could not grasp the arguments in a book or write a grammatical sentence or coherent paragraph. Academic standards crumbled. Those serious students who remained—and still remain—found themselves marooned.

But the greatest tragedy of open admissions occurred outside of CUNY, in the city's public schools. CUNY's decision to admit any breathing human being with a record of occasional high school attendance proved a deathblow to the city's schools. Already underperforming in the 1960s, the schools now had no incentive to strive, for CUNY guaranteed any level of mediocrity college admission. CUNY's entrance requirements—no skills or knowledge required—became the high schools' exit requirements.

CUNY now has the opportunity to correct its fatal miscalculation. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki today have a majority on CUNY's board of trustees. That majority has acknowledged that standards have dropped unconscionably at CUNY and has declared its intention to turn the university around. While the board has already announced some measures to do so, they are only a first step. The mayor and the governor should make sure that the trustees carry out the following agenda:

Remediation. The trustees have determined to limit remediation at the senior colleges to one year. Students with more serious skills problems must first attend a community college. While well-intentioned, this is too low a standard. Forty years ago it would have been inconceivable for a college freshman to show up on registration day and announce, "Oh, and by the way, you'll also have to teach me to read and write." If CUNY is ever to regain its status as an institution of higher learning whose degrees are valued, it must cease performing the role of elementary and secondary schools. More important, if New York's primary and secondary schools are ever to improve, there must be no safety-net institution that will try all over again to accomplish what the schools failed to do—with taxpayers footing the bill both times. CUNY's senior colleges, therefore, should offer no remedial courses.

Conventional wisdom among reformers redirects students with deficient skills to community colleges. But community colleges were never intended as de facto high schools. They are supposed to be technical training schools, on the one hand, and on the other, a less expensive alternative to a liberal arts college where students uncertain about their academic intentions can try out higher learning. Their mission should not include redoing elementary and high school education. CUNY's community colleges, therefore, should also close down their remedial departments and redirect the resources to improving their often antiquated technical programs.

The city should invite private tutoring companies, such as Kaplan Educational Centers, to offer remedial courses either in their own facilities or possibly at the community colleges. Most of CUNY's remedial departments have been overrun by theory-besotted post-Marxists, who see in bad grammar a courageous blow against the racist patriarchy and a mark of freethinking individuality. (There are exceptions, of course—a few dedicated remedial teachers work overtime to maintain traditional standards of achievement.) As one City College remedial English teacher explained: the degree to which you correct a student's prose "depends on how much boredom you want to put up with, because hyper-correcting turns out dull people scared of error." Since such a view is rampant in the CUNY remedial faculty, the city would be better off turning to less ideological tutors.

Because ending the remedial safety net would radically change the rules under which students have operated, CUNY should eliminate remediation over a reasonable timetable, so that graduating seniors and juniors will not be left in the cold. In three or four years, however, all taxpayer-subsidized remediation should stop. Students who graduate high school without basic skills in the future will have to pay for their own remediation.

For one group of students, eliminating a remedial second chance will have no deterrent effect on elementary and high school incompetence: adults. They graduated under school chancellors long since disappeared. For them, the Board of Education should keep offering continuing education courses in basic skills.

Apologists for remediation argue that non-English-speaking students make up much of CUNY's current remedial burden. But students who need an interpreter to register for classes should not be registering in the first place, for they cannot yet benefit from an education in English. CUNY should turn Hostos Community College, the only allegedly bilingual college in the country (in reality, it is monolingual in Spanish), into an English-language immersion school. All foreign students would master English there (at their own expense—taxpayers should not pay to teach adult foreigners English) before enrolling in a regular college.

CUNY's most perverse betrayal of the ideal of higher education is the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge (SEEK). Predating even open admissions, SEEK was CUNY's first capitulation to racial politics. Desperate to prove its racial good faith, CUNY took academically deficient minority students, thrust them into the senior colleges, for which they were otherwise ineligible, and showered them with additional tutoring and counseling (which is not to say that they actually showed up for their tutoring sessions). Notwithstanding the resources expended on SEEK, its graduation rate has historically been about 23 percent over eight years—in accordance with the iron law of remediation: the lower the student's skills, the less likely is he to succeed at remedying them. SEEK's de facto admissions policy—the worse your grades, the greater your chance of admission—is precisely the opposite of the work ethic that CUNY should promote. The trustees should close down SEEK and its community college counterpart, College Discovery, and devote the resources to CUNY's woefully underfunded honors programs.

Knowledge. Requiring that entering freshmen be able to read and write, while a radical idea at CUNY, is a far cry from traditional college entrance standards. To restore CUNY's former luster, the trustees must put knowledge back into the equation. The four flagship colleges—Brooklyn, City, Hunter, and Queens—should require that entering freshmen have taken a full array of college preparatory courses in high school. Such was the intent of the College Preparatory Initiative, a program started by former chancellor W. Ann Reynolds, but it has yet to be enforced. CUNY should implement it immediately, without loopholes. In addition, the senior colleges should start demanding creditable SAT scores. The newer four-year colleges and community colleges should also require academic preparation and SATs, though at a less demanding level.

The trustees must ensure that there are no hidden passages into the senior colleges that skirt the entrance requirements. Currently, the senior colleges must admit any student transferring from a community college with a degree. The board should abolish that provision. All students should meet the same standards.

Content. It is not enough to bring in well-prepared students to CUNY, if the university offers them nonsense once they've arrived. Like almost all universities nationally, CUNY has embraced the race-class-gender-and-sexuality posturing that passes for humanities scholarship today. While the Graduate Center offers colloquia in "Queer Globalization/Local Homosexualities," for example, Hunter requires its undergraduates to take courses in "women's studies and gender/sexual orientation" before graduating. It cannot be said enough: the current identity-based "scholarship" is a fraud. It deserves no deference from those outside academia, who too often suspend judgment when confronted with its mystifying jargon. That ever more arcane language refers to nothing outside itself; it is not a contribution to knowledge but, in its celebration of self-esteem and "empowerment," a betrayal of Western and Eastern scholarly traditions.

The trustees should make it their mission to strengthen traditional scholarship and teaching at CUNY and eradicate the impostor subjects. They should mow down the costly multicultural institutes and initiatives that sprout up almost yearly at CUNY, and declare that the classic texts of Western culture are the basis of a CUNY education. Non-Western studies can greatly enrich that education, but they must be based in real historical scholarship, not in political score-settling.

Unfortunately, the trustees' appointment of Brooklyn College provost Christoph M. Kimmich as interim chancellor suggests that they do not grasp the stakes in the culture wars. Provost Kimmich led the effort last year to adulterate Brooklyn College's admirable core curriculum with required courses in such specious areas as community relations, local politics, and that darling of the lightweight everywhere: "communications."

Having made one error, the trustees should not repeat it. The future chancellor must express unswerving commitment to a core curriculum in history, literature, and science. The trustees should identify and nurture CUNY's remnants of solid learning. Queens College, for example, possesses a rich program in the arts and humanities, led by a respected music scholar. The trustees should reward with extra faculty lines those campuses that strengthen their traditional humanities offerings. In addition, they should try to revive those programs that once made a great contribution to the city's economy, such as City College's engineering program.

Performance measures. The trustees have laudably introduced performance measures into their future evaluation of CUNY. Schools that increase their graduation rates and cut administrative jobs will receive funding for additional faculty positions. Unfortunately, schools can manipulate their graduation rates by lowering academic standards. A better measure of performance might be a student achievement test in the core curricular areas, administered midway in a student's college career and graded on a university-wide basis. Students who failed any of the core areas would have to take further courses in those areas while proceeding with their majors. With such a requirement in place, CUNY could issue an ironclad guarantee of cultural literacy to parents and future employers.

Some parts of CUNY do not need further evaluation; existing evidence indicts them as irremediably rotten. CUNY's law school is the laughing-stock of the legal profession, with its rock-bottom bar pass rates and 1960s-style curriculum in political organizing and consciousness-raising. With New York City already teeming with law schools and lawyers, CUNY's law school should be closed down. Ditto Medgar Evers College and Hostos Community College, the latter to be reborn as an English-immersion institute. New York is racially polarized enough as it is; the last thing the city needs is colleges that specialize in ethnic separatism.

CUNY's teacher education programs are also an embarrassment, lagging far behind New York State's other education schools in their teacher certification pass rates. Of New York's 46 education schools, only five had pass rates below 60 percent last year; four of those were at CUNY. Only 39 percent of Evers's teacher graduates passed the state licensing exam—small wonder, given the students' initial ignorance and the Afrocentric foolishness with which the school subsequently pumps them up. The leading Afrocentric quack, Asa Hilliard, for example, was the honored guest at an all-day conference in the "curriculum of inclusion" several years ago; City College race agitator Leonard Jeffries also led a student discussion group. Evers also devotes inordinate resources to special education and "paraprofessional" education. Because CUNY supplies a huge percentage of the city's teachers, the trustees have rightly made improving teacher education a central priority. Doing so will require focusing on basic knowledge and on how to maintain classroom discipline, rather than on nonsensical theories of post-colonial discourse and feminist epistemology.

Bloated administration. CUNY's administration has swelled, even as its faculty ranks dwindle. In the president's office alone at Medgar Evers, for example, there is an executive assistant, a director of institutional advancement and public affairs, an executive director of institutional computing and system development, a coordinator of new initiatives, a special assistant, an affirmative action officer, and an executive secretary—not to mention the school's Office for Differently Abled Students. All of CUNY's student affairs deans, student counselors, diversity monitors, and assistants to the aide to the provost are a diversion from the classroom and from libraries. The trustees should require across-the-board cuts in administrative positions, targeting first the ubiquitous and wholly superfluous affirmative action departments that strangle every college. New York, and especially CUNY, has no diversity deficit. CUNY should renounce race- and gender-based hiring and admissions as an insult to the beneficiaries and an unfair penalty against those not favored by government's Byzantine race and gender classifications.

The university has created freestanding institutes, such as the sinecure Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean, at a blinding rate. They perform little, if any, teaching and serve mainly as a haven for faculty desperate to escape the tedium of lecturing to unprepared students. The trustees should put a moratorium on all such future institutes and declare that the primary mission of the university is to be a superb undergraduate teaching institution.

Community colleges. There is a critical shortage of traditional skilled tradesmen in the city, as well as workers in the new technologies. New York manufacturers are unable to find skilled machinists; high-tech firms likewise struggle to find advanced programmers. Employers complain that many of CUNY's community colleges, while well-intentioned, lag far behind the needs of industry. The community colleges should vigorously solicit and implement the advice of business leaders on how to function more effectively. CUNY could do much to stem the migration of business out of the city by guaranteeing a steady flow of technologically competent workers.

CUNY was once part of New York's traditional opportunity culture—it gave an enormous shot at success to young people with the drive to work hard. It did not pander to its students but held them to the same standards as more elite schools. The result was a great boost not only to them but also to New York's economy and culture. CUNY can be an opportunity school again by demanding excellence from its students. If it does, it can once more contribute to the city that supports it.

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