Since the Schmidt commission on the City University of New York delivered its recommendations last June, public debate has centered on the thorny problem of remediation. The commission's most important finding, however, concerned CUNY's nonexistent top end, not its overly ample bottom end. It is there that the battle lines over CUNY's future are most sharply drawn.
CUNY is unique among large public university systems in not having a single college for students in the top first or second quartile of national academic achievement, measured by SAT scores and basic skills. Students at Baruch, CUNY's most selective school, fall in the 30th to 40th percentile of all SAT takers (meaning that 60 percent to 70 percent of American students score higher). From there, CUNY's schools plummet down to absolute rock bottom. With this narrow range of scores, CUNY students are either minimally qualified for college, or not qualified at all, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The absence of a CUNY campus with a top-notch student body constitutes a gaping educational and cultural hole in New York. Flagship campuses elsewhere, such as the University of California at Berkeley, serve as intellectual pole stars for their respective college systems. They motivate high-school students to achieve; they attract the most gifted faculty from across the country; and they incubate ideas.
Without such beacons of excellence, New York is experiencing brain drain. Virtually no graduates of the city's elite public high schools go to CUNY; most go upstate or out of state, stripping the city of homegrown talent that would otherwise develop ties to the local economy.
To counter this exodus, and, who knows, maybe even to attract into CUNY top undergraduates from outside the city—currently a fanciful notion—the Schmidt commission (on which I served) recommended creating two flagship campuses for students with SATs of at least 1200 and high grades. Surely in a city as large as New York, there is room for excellence?
The answer from CUNY's entrenched interests could not be clearer: mediocrity is good enough for CUNY and for New York. A series of counter-reports to the Schmidt commission from an overlapping set of CUNY defenders rejects the idea of a flagship campus as racist, anti-democratic, and anti-poor. The Friends of CUNY say that the Schmidt report would turn CUNY into a "bastion of exclusion." The Faculty Senate questions the very possibility of "objective" standards of achievement, thus demonstrating its postmodern credentials, if not its academic good faith. Several counter-reports posit the Grad Center as a flagship—a ludicrously irrelevant response to the need for an elite undergraduate institution.
The zero-sum thinking that sees excellence only as an impediment to access is New York's greatest educational failing. Contrary to CUNY's kneejerk defense squad, excellence adds to a system, it does not detract from it. Moreover, CUNY's own history belies the racist assumption that minorities and the poor will never gain entry to the best campuses. City College for decades drew high-achieving poor New Yorkers excluded from private schools because of their religion. Creating a CUNY campus for the pinnacle of the city's academic talent is a policy of inclusion, not exclusion, that could pull the rest of the system up with it. Chancellor Matthew Goldstein should give it his highest attention.