The Usual Suspects Attack a Reformer

Today’s New York Post features a strong editorial praising the work of CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein, whose record of improving quality over the past decade is virtually unparalleled among university heads nationally.

The Chancellor’s proposal, called Pathways, seeks to establish common general-education requirements at CUNY’s senior and community colleges, largely to smooth the transfer process for students who enter CUNY at the community college level. As the Post notes, in different hands, this concept might lead simply to lowering standards across the board, but Goldstein can be trusted,” given his record. “His critics, by contrast, include many of the same faculty who stood foursquare against the hike in standards. This time around, they seek to protect pay and perks: The more pointless low-level courses that are required, the more jobs for them. They were wrong on open admissions. And they are wrong now.”

The Chancellor’s proposal has the potential to be a win-win arrangement for all concerned. For community college students, the idea will smooth the transfer process and facilitate development of a truly integrated university. For the university, a slight reduction in senior-college general education courses (for which community college students will receive transfer credit) likely will mean that most students have a higher percentage of their classes taught by full-time faculty at the senior college level. And, as the Post editorial notes, the Chancellor hopes that the university-wide faculty disciplinary committees that his proposal envisions will improve standards at community colleges.

This proposal is a significant one, and people of good faith can disagree on its merits. Yet much of the opposition has come from elected faculty organizations whose leaders seem to view it as their jobs to reflexively oppose anything that the Chancellor proposes. And so Pathways has drawn rebukes from both the faculty union (the PSC) and the University Faculty Senate (UFS). Both have claimed that the Chancellor’s idea will diminish standards at CUNY. The PSC also likely understands that the proposal might reduce senior-college slots for adjuncts—who are members of the CUNY faculty union and form the electoral base of the PSC’s extremist leader, Barbara Bowen.

There is a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland element to this PSC/UFS critique. Over the past decade, the Chancellor has pushed through several initiatives (establishing the Macaulay Honors College, which brought in Ivy League-quality students to CUNY; championing the CUNY Compact, which helped to stabilize the university’s funding levels; and extending the tenure clock to seven years, making it harder for professors without research accomplishments to achieve tenure) that were designed to enhance quality at CUNY. Each succeeded. And in each case, the Chancellor acted over the determined opposition of the PSC and UFS. Yet now these two faculty bodies would have New Yorkers believe that they are CUNY’s champions of quality, with the Chancellor resisting their efforts.  This claim is laughable.

If anything, then, the Post editorial understates the record: the PSC/UFS leadership has been wrong not merely on open admissions. They’ve been wrong on virtually everything at CUNY in the past decade-plus. There’s no reason to believe that they have suddenly become more discerning.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

One thought on “The Usual Suspects Attack a Reformer”

  1. Almost 15 years ago, the Board of Trustees of CUNY ended remediation and ushered in more stringent admission policies for freshmen at the senior colleges. The rationale was that many students weren’t prepared for work toward a bachelor’s degree and they needed a strong developmental education before proceeding to a senior college. Today, the Chancellery uses the higher SAT scores of senior college freshman to market the value of a CUNY bachelors degree and argue that academic standards are much more rigorous than they were in the past.
    The reality is more complicated: the majority of students at senior colleges are transfer students and about 2/3 of these students arrive without an associate’s degree. Most of these students arrive at CUNY with significant academic deficits and even after one year of work at a community college they remain 25% less likely to graduate with a BA in six years after transferring to a senior college than their senior college counterparts. The current transfer proposals seek to reduce General Education requirements for all CUNY students and facilitate early transfer from a community college to a senior college. Instead of improving the skills of CUNY graduates these proposals continue the pretense that the academic needs of students earning a bachelors degree at CUNY can be defined by the academic profile of first-time freshmen at senior colleges that the Chancellery uses to market CUNY. It is also the case that mandating universal transfer of all courses does nothing to insure that every course is rigorous or an appropriate part of a student’s degree. The New York Post needs to learn what CUNY faculty know: The Chancellor has been much better at managing his press through cheap gimmicks than he has been at supporting meaningful efforts to enhance what occurs in the classroom.

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