I’ve worked at CUNY under four governors—George Pataki, Elliot Spitzer, David Paterson, and Andrew Cuomo. Pataki (and state Senate Republicans) didn’t allocate to the institution sufficient funding. But he was by far the best governor of the four for CUNY.
Pataki appointed a superbly-qualified chairman of the Board of Trustees, Benno Schmidt. He named other trustees—Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, Kay Pesile—who were both independent and committed to CUNY’s academic excellence. (And, despite opposition from status quo faculty, Pataki reappointed Wiesenfeld.) The board, in turn, appointed an excellent chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, whose policies helped to revitalize the institution. All the while, Pataki stood aside and allowed CUNY to flourish free from political meddling.
Neither Spitzer nor Paterson served long enough to leave much of a mark on CUNY—though both seemed to recognize the institution’s significant improvement in the Schmidt-Goldstein era and seemed disinclined to reverse the progress. Not so, however, Cuomo.
For his first term, Cuomo confined his CUNY policy to disinterest—though he distinguished himself as even less supportive of robust funding levels than Pataki or the GOP-led state Senate. But since winning re-election in 2014, he increasingly has targeted the institution. He offered a curious call for consolidating the CUNY and SUNY administrations, despite the radical differences between the two institutions. (For starters: CUNY schools are urban and non-residential; many SUNY schools are rural or exurban with on-campus residency requirements.)
As part of this effort, the Cuomo administration criticized CUNY’s decision to pay Goldstein as chancellor emeritus, which carried with it teaching and research expectations. (As the Times noted at the time, “By national standards, Dr. Goldstein’s compensation has always been moderate.”) And the governor brought to CUNY, which heretofore had a policy that was a model of fairness, his campaign to weaken due process protections for students accused of sexual assault.
In the meantime, Cuomo stacked the CUNY Board of Trustees with political cronies. Here’s a listing, from a recent New York Times summary: “[A] new chairman, William C. Thompson Jr., the former New York City comptroller, Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president; Robert F. Mujica, Mr. Cuomo’s budget director; Ken Sunshine, a public relations consultant; and Mayra Linares-Garcia, Mr. Cuomo’s former director of Latino affairs.” None have, to date, demonstrated any indication of independence from the governor.
Frustrated in his effort to consolidate CUNY and SUNY, the governor then took advantage of alleged financial misconduct by the former president of CCNY, Lisa Coico. The Cuomo-appointed BOT chairman, Thompson, publicly “requested” a university-wide audit by the state inspector general, who—contrary to normal practice—quickly issued an “interim” report. The report’s revelations—focusing on a tendency to hire outside counsel for sticky investigations (an approach that
The report’s revelations—focusing on a tendency to hire outside counsel for sticky investigations (an approach that has worked very well at CUNY) and purportedly excessive discretionary spending by college presidents—hardly seemed to be the type that would justify an “interim” report. Nonetheless, Albany responded with a statement containing a scarcely-concealed attack on the upper-level CUNY administration.
Cuomo’s motives in targeting CUNY remain unclear. The Times quotes CUNY emeritus professor Kenneth Sherrill, who observed that Cuomo might want to distract attention from a scandal at SUNY-Polytechnic Institute. It’s also possible that CUNY has become caught in the battle between Cuomo and his chief rival in the New York Democratic Party, NYC mayor Bill DeBlasio. If so, CUNY is in deep trouble indeed, trapped between a governor who seems willing to use the institution as a political plaything and a mayor who’s an incompetent ideologue.
But, in the end, Cuomo’s motivation is irrelevant. An effective, independent administration at CUNY is critical given the ineffectiveness of the elected faculty leadership—especially the faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress, which has distinguished itself over the past 15 years for its opposition to every major effort to raise standards at CUNY.
Any vacuum caused by less independent trustees and administrators—the clear effect if not the intent of Cuomo’s policies—will only work to weaken education at CUNY overall.