City Journal

Herman Badillo
City Journal Interview: Setting a High Standard
Herman Badillo on the future of City University
Autumn 1992

In 1990, 39 years after he completed his bachelor’s degree at City College, Herman Badillo was appointed by Governor Cuomo to a seat on the Board of Trustees of what had become the City University of New York (CUNY), a system with twenty campuses in the five boroughs. Badillo has emerged as one of the most independent-minded members of the board. He took a strong stand against Leonard Jeffries, the City College professor who gained notoriety for his anti-Semitic remarks. And he has raised fundamental questions about CUNY’s direction—including whether it should continue its practice of open admissions or impose standards for students wishing to attend.

Badillo came to New York City from his native Puerto Rico at age 11. A 1954 graduate of Brooklyn Law School, he has a long history of public service. In 1962 he was appointed commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Relocation. He was elected to the Bronx borough presidency in 1965 and the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970. In 197&79 he served as Ed Koch’s deputy mayor for policy. He is now a partner in the law firm of Fischbein, Badillo, Wagner & Itzler.

Badillo was interviewed for the City Journal by Senior Editor Fred Siegel, a professor of history at Cooper Union; Peter Salins, a professor of urban affairs at Hunter College and member of the City Journal’s editorial board; Randall K. Filer, a professor of economics at Hunter and also a member of the journal’s editorial board; and Joel Segall, former president of Baruch College.

CITY JOURNAL: There is a widespread public perception that City University is not the institution it once was and that the individual colleges—especially City College, flagship of the system—are not as good as they were. Is this accurate?

BADILLO: I think it’s totally accurate. State and city funding for CUNY has declined by about $350 million or 33.5 percent since 1970-71, even as enrollment has risen almost 5 percent, to 200,000 in 1992-93. When public officials cut funds so drastically for a function as important as higher education, it demonstrates that City University has lost the massive public support it enjoyed as recently as twenty years ago. And legislators feel that City University is no longer a prime institution of learning.

CITY JOURNAL: Are they right?

BADILLO: Yes, and they will be more right. Reduced funding will force CUNY to rely more on part-time professors. In some of the colleges, I’m told, up to two-thirds of the faculty will be part-time. The quality of education will decline, and the classrooms will become more crowded.

The decline in CUNY’s quality is reflected in the statistics. We have figures that show that 73 percent of students never graduate from the four-year colleges. At some of the community colleges, the dropout rate is as high as 83 percent.

CITY JOURNAL: Are these poor results related to the absence of admission standards?

BADILLO: Yes, but the problem really begins at the elementary and secondary school levels. Joseph Fernandez, chancellor of the New York public schools, has acknowledged that only 20 percent of city high school graduates who go on to CUNY have a meaningful high school diploma.

We should be ensuring that we have higher standards at the beginning of the educational process. Instead, we are now back where we were many years ago with the social promotion standard. When I came from Puerto Rico and began going to school in East Harlem, I thought America was very strange. In Puerto Rico if you did your work, you passed; if you didn’t, you flunked. Here if you do your work, you pass; if you don’t, you pass anyway—it’s called social promotion. When I was deputy mayor, I set up a series of educational “gates.” Under the gates program, students were evaluated each year, beginning in the first grade, to determine whether they were ready to advance to the next grade. Those who were not were given remedial work. After I left office, Chancellor Frank Macchiarola changed the educational gates to the fourth and seventh grades. This undermined their effectiveness: Every educator knows that if you don’t do anything in the first, second, or third grade, by the time you get to the fourth grade it’s usually too late. But at least the concept of gates was retained.

Now Chancellor Fernandez and Mayor Dinkins have quietly eliminated the educational gates. Once again, everybody passes, even those who do not perform. If you haven’t dropped out by the time you get to be 17 years old, you get a diploma. Then you go on to the City University and have to spend years to get the equivalent of a high school diploma. We have abandoned educational standards.

CITY JOURNAL: Has CUNY done anything about this problem?

BADILLO: Our chancellor, W. Ann Reynolds, initiated what is known as the College Preparatory Initiative. All the university trustees voted for it. It attempts to mandate that by a given year the New York public schools must ensure that everyone gets a meaningful high school diploma. But this will not actually happen, since no money was ever appropriated for the Board of Education to meet this mandate.

In fact, the initiative as it was passed provides that anyone who doesn’t meet these requirements in high school will simply take the necessary high school courses at CUNY. So we’re going to continue the same thing we’re doing now: taking anyone who gets a high school diploma, even though everyone concedes that it’s often a meaningless diploma.

CITY JOURNAL: Are you saying, in effect, that open admissions unintentionally undermined the high schools by taking the pressure off them—that once open admissions began, few people cared whether the high schools did a good )ob, since everyone who wanted to could move on?

BADILLO: Yes. CUNY’s senior colleges have a program called SEEK, which aims to help disadvantaged high school graduates. Because SEEK is for those who are academically as well as economically disadvantaged, it ends up being little more than a remedial program for those with phony high school diplomas. Today, about one-third of CUNY students are in the SEEK program, which was originally envisioned to be much smaller. I think SEEK is a good program, but it belongs in the high schools, not the colleges.

When I was running for Mayor in 1969, I came out against open admissions. I predicted then that it would lead to the kind of lowering of standards that would undermine public support for the City University.

CITY JOURNAL: To oppose open admissions in 1969 was probably very courageous. Would it still be courageous today?

BADILLO: It didn’t help me in 1969, and I don’t think it would help me now. But I still take the same point of view. A lot of people are afraid that if you flunk black or Hispanic kids, their parents will feel it’s racist. That’s not so. My experience has been that African-American and Latino parents want their kids to be evaluated the same as other children are.

CITY JOURNAL: Then you don’t see this as an explosive or divisive racial issue?

BADILLO: No. You’re not helping the African-American kids, the Latino kids, or their parents by letting them feel that they have a meaningful diploma when they don’t. Ultimately they’re not going to be employable.

CITY JOURNAL: Do you think that the rest of the political leadership in the African-American and Latino community would agree with you and be willing to say so on the record?

BADILLO: I think they would agree with me, but I don’t know how many would be willing to say it on the record. In fact I know they agree with me, but I don’t know that they’re willing to lead the battle.

CITY JOURNAL: Is Herman Badillo willing to lead the fight for change?

BADILLO: I have been. I said these things in 1969 when I was running for office, and I’ve said them over the years, ever since I came here from Puerto Rico.

CITY JOURNAL: Does CUNY have to wait until the high schools have their house in order before it can start imposing standards, or should it start now and hope that the high schools will respond?

BADILLO: CUNY has to wait as long as CUNY has the remedial courses within its mandate.

CITY JOURNAL: Couldn’t the trustees recommend to the State Legislature that there be such a change?

BADILLO: Let’s put it bluntly: The trustees are not politicians who are going to go out and try to set policy. Ten of the trustees are appointed by the Governor and five by the Mayor. They tend to feel that policies should start at the level of the Governor and the Mayor.

CITY JOURNAL: Are you saying that the trustees merely serve as a buffer to insulate the Governor and the Mayor from responsibility?

BADILLO: People who are appointed by mayors and governors are not independent. That includes trustees of other agencies such as the Health and Hospitals Corporation or the State of New York Mortgage Agency as well as City University. It’s just a legal fiction that they make their own decisions. If the Board of Trustees had the power to tax so it could raise its own budget, then it would be a real board. But when you don’t have any fiscal powers, you are not really an independent agency.

CITY JOURNAL: If the Governor were to come to the Board of Trustees and say, “We have to cut back and we want you to impose standards in order to reduce the size of this institution,” would the Board of Trustees do it?

BADILLO: I think so, if the Governor were to take the political heat for it. But the approach of the Governor and the Mayor has been simply to cut back on financial support for the institution. I have heard no suggestion of any positive initiatives coming out of either the Governor’s Office or the Mayor’s Office. I think they just wanted to cut spending. When you cut, you look for areas where you’re going to have the least public outcry. For example, politicians know that if they cut a fire station, there’s going to be hell to pay. But they now know that they can cut 33 percent from higher education and get away with it.

CITY JOURNAL: Have you had this conversation, or some form of it, privately with the Governor, and if so what was his response?

BADILLO: I have discussed some of these issues with the Governor’s Office. I can make a difference in some minor amounts of money, but not in a cut of $350 million. I was helpful in saving New York City Technical College from being eliminated and in helping John Jay College, whose budget the Mayor had cut substantially.

CITY JOURNAL: Has CUNY had any success in influencing the city’s public schools to improve?

BADILLO: Not really. All that we have happening is the CUNY chancellor and trustees telling the Board of Education what it should be doing and the Board of Education replying that it doesn’t have the money.

The public school system is very resistant to change. For example, I’ve been trying to replace the obsolete internal combustion engines used for vocational training at the Haaren High School—now the High School of Marine and Aviation Trades—since I became president of the Bronx in 1966. I had a fellow who was willing to take the internal combustion engines in exchange for jet engines. But I was told that this couldn’t be done because the teachers would need a two-year sabbatical to be trained in jet engines and there was no money for this.

CITY JOURNAL: To what extent would you support CUNY’s colleges maintaining high standards in the classroom?

BADILLO: One hundred percent. I feel very strongly about this. I have the feeling that many employers who consider hiring CUNY graduates will look at the date of the degree. A pre-1970 degree is worth more in employers’ minds than one issued since then. If college students aren’t really learning and are getting phony college degrees, that’s not helping either the students or society.

CITY JOURNAL: Are you saying that in the current environment, CUNY administrators should not worry about dropout rates but should focus more on the quality of the people who do graduate?

BADILLO: Absolutely. Right now, for example, I’m struggling with the so-called F-grade policy. In some colleges you can fail a course and then take it over and fail, and then take it over and fail again. There’s no system-wide limit on the number of times a student can repeat a course. At Queens College it doesn’t just apply to the F grade. You can take a course over if you get a C, and if you get a B the second time, the B counts.

This issue is now before the Academic Affairs Committee. It came up when the President of Staten Island College asked what the policy is. Nobody had asked the question before. Now we’re trying to set trustee policy.

CITY JOURNAL: Other states that have faced this tension between access to and quality of education almost all have evolved the same solution: differentiating among the campuses and having different standards for each. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, has higher standards than the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

BADILLO: The distinction here in CUNY is between community colleges and the senior colleges, not among the senior colleges.

CITY JOURNAL: Could we make a distinction among the senior colleges if each had different admission standards?

BADILLO: I think we could, but I don’t know that it would make any sense. My view is that there should be standards, but there shouldn’t be lower standards for one group of students and higher standards for another.

It would create a very difficult problem if each individual college had a separate admission standard. I’m concerned that some would require a real high school diploma and others would have lower standards.

CITY JOURNAL: Why is that a bad idea?

BADILLO: Because I think we should insist that high school diplomas be meaningful. I don’t think you’re helping things if you say the students with real high school diplomas go to Lehman College and the ones with phony diplomas go to City College.

CITY JOURNAL: Wouldn’t it be better to save some of the campuses rather then allow the entire system to collapse?

BADILLO: You have to have standards for the whole system. If we give up on having standards, we’ll end up putting the black and Puerto Rican kids in one college and the white kids in another college. That is what would happen, from a practical point of view. It would be regarded as racist, and it would not solve our problem.

CITY JOURNAL: The Queens Law School has had some difficulty with respect to standards. It was set up to encourage students to become public-service lawyers, but that mission has been difficult to reconcile with the conventional standards of law schools. As a result, its graduates have had very low pass rates on the bar exam.

BADILLO: I don’t know why that should have been a problem. We do pro bono work in my law firm, and the lawyers we assign are no different from other lawyers. Lawyers who represent the poor should be as well-trained as those who represent the wealthy.

CITY JOURNAL: Given CUNY’s shortage of funds, should it be supporting a law school, especially given the vast number of other law schools in the New York area?

BADILLO: Law-school tuition is very expensive. If we want young people from poor families to have the opportunity to become lawyers—securities lawyers as well as public defenders—then it makes sense to have a CUNY law school. Likewise, it makes sense, to have a CUNY medical school or a CUNY graduate school. But they should all have high standards.

CITY JOURNAL: What is your view on proposals for a more multicultural curriculum?

BADILLO: There’s nothing wrong with having multicultural courses, provided that standards do not become too loose. The problem with Professor Leonard Jeffries at City College is that he distorts the concept of multiculturalism. A majority of the trustees and faculty voted to support Professor Jeffries, suggesting that someone who goes around attacking Jews or whites in general is qualified to be chairman of a university department. Multicultural courses are fine, so long as they celebrate the values of the different cultures and do not degenerate into vehicles for attacking one culture or another. You can praise African or Latin American culture without attacking European culture.

CITY JOURNAL: Would it be reasonable to relax some requirements in traditional subjects like history or philosophy to make way for these new multicultural courses?

BADILLO: There’s a traditional definition of the courses needed to earn a college degree—including electives. If you follow that path, there’s plenty of leeway for courses in Afro-American studies, Latin American studies, Asian studies, American Indian studies, or whatever.

CITY JOURNAL: But the controversy is over whether such courses should be required of all students.

BADILLO: Maybe some should be, but that’s something I would expect the college presidents to recommend to the Board of Trustees.

CITY JOURNAL: CUNY was founded in 1961, when five independent colleges were consolidated into one system. Over time, 15 other colleges were absorbed into the CUNY system. Was that a good idea? Should we rethink it and possibly give the individual colleges more administrative autonomy?

BADILLO: I don’t support the idea of a huge bureaucracy in any department. I don’t think that these massive consolidations have worked in education, or in health, housing, welfare, or other areas. I generally favor giving more power to the individual colleges. As to the form this would take, I would expect it would be based on recommendations from the college presidents.

CITY JOURNAL: Should the City University be merged into the State University system?

BADILLO: Since I don’t think establishing CUNY was such a great idea, I don’t think it would be a good idea to merge SUNY and CUNY. We would have a bigger bureaucracy and even fewer benefits coming down to the individual colleges. I don’t think bigger and bigger mergers of public institutions are the way to go.

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