By Costas Panayotakis
On April 13, Ariel Kaminer’s “Longtime CUNY Chancellor to Step Down After Pushing Higher Standards” reported on Matthew Goldstein’s decision to step down as chancellor of the City University of New York, one of the largest public higher education systems in the country and one of the most important educational institutions in New York City. (i) I do not claim in what follows to present a comprehensive or ‘objective’ assessment of Goldstein’s long tenure at CUNY. Instead, drawing on my more than 10 years of experience as a CUNY faculty member, I am offering what I feel is a needed corrective to Kaminer’s largely hagiographic account.
As the title of Kaminer’s article suggests, the reporter has bought into Goldstein’s and CUNY administration’s claim to have raised standards. In backing up this claim, the article quotes the statistics, provided by CUNY, about the SAT scores of students entering “CUNY’s top five four-year colleges – Baruch, Brooklyn, City, Hunter and Queens.” While this line of argument is reflective of CUNY’s obsession with SAT scores, the reporter accepts it at face value without mentioning that SAT scores have been shown to be less reflective of a student’s potential for college success than her socio-economic background. It is for this reason that the trend among the most prestigious universities in this country is to place less rather than more emphasis on SAT scores. So as the prestigious universities that have long focused on educating the children of the economic elite are trying to increase diversity by moving away from biased indicators, CUNY, whose mission has historically been to provide educational opportunity to New York City’s underprivileged groups, has increased its reliance on such biased indicators. It is not surprising, then, that Goldstein’s policies have led to a reduced representation of black and Latino students in CUNY’s most competitive colleges. (ii) In fact, things have gotten so bad that, as a letter to the Editor of the New York Times has pointed out, “in 2011, the percentage of black freshmen at Baruch College (6 percent) was lower than that of Harvard University (7 percent), despite the fact that an overwhelming share of CUNY students come from predominantly black and Latino public high schools.” (iii)
Given its focus on ‘higher standards,’ it is also curious to read what the article has to say about the raging controversy over Pathways, the new CUNY-wide general education requirements that Goldstein and his Board of Trustees are trying to impose against the objections of the most appropriate people to make decisions on curriculum, namely faculty and their elected governance bodies. The article uncritically accepts CUNY’s stated rationale for Pathways, which is to “make it easier to transfer credits from one CUNY college to another.” This rationale has by now been thoroughly debunked by the research of a number of CUNY faculty, who showed that CUNY’s claims regarding Pathways were based on faulty research that overstated the transfer problems within the CUNY system. Its rationale debunked, CUNY pivoted into a claim that Pathways was not about transfer but about student choice. Such a claim seems even more absurd, given the fact that, before Pathways, students interested in CUNY could choose between the different CUNY colleges’ general education programs. If and when Pathways becomes implemented, students interested in CUNY will have to take a Pathways-based general education, no matter what college they end up attending.
However, the main problem with Pathways is not the dubious rationale offered by CUNY but the fact that it reduces academic standards, rather than raising them. At a time when, even before they enter college, American students’ performance in Math and science lags behind that of their peers in other advanced countries (iv), Pathways will reduce the exposure to Math, science and labs of students who pursue non-technical degrees. At a time when the world is going through its deepest socio-economic crisis since the Great Depression, Pathways will make it possible for many students to graduate from college without any exposure to social science. At a time when cultural contact is at an all time high and bound to continue increasing, Pathways will reduce the exposure that students in many of CUNY’s colleges will have to foreign language.
This is why most CUNY faculty (as well as thousands of faculty from across the country who have signed a national petition against Pathways) are opposed to Pathways. Faced with faculty opposition, CUNY has relied on intimidation. As Kaminer has reported in the past, in the most egregious case the administration at Queensborough Community College threatened faculty members’ jobs when they voted against the Pathways-prescribed 3-unit composition courses that reduced the time students had to spend in class with their composition professors. (v) Anyone who has taught at CUNY knows that many of our students, including (but not only) the ones who are not native speakers of English, need all the help they can get with their writing. So pushing for these 3-unit courses is as antithetical to truly raising the quality of CUNY students’ education as all the other changes mentioned above.
Apart from assaulting the quality of a CUNY education, Pathways’ reliance on intimidation has understandably poisoned the climate, leading, as a CUNY faculty member quoted in the article correctly points out, to “the worst morale since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.” Oddly enough, however, the faculty member in question also adds that, apart from that, Chancellor Goldstein’s achievements were terrific! I hope I am not too presumptuous when I say that, apart from the students themselves, the most valuable resource of any university are the faculty. If that’s true, there is no greater indictment than the fact that faculty morale is at an all-time low and suggesting that a chancellor is great, except from the minor fact that his actions have destroyed faculty morale, is hard to fathom.
Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press).
(i) See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/13/education/matthew-goldstein-announces-resignation-as-cuny-chancellor.html .
(ii) On this point see Richard Perez-Pena, “At CUNY, Stricter Admissions Bring Ethnic Shift,” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/23/nyregion/at-cunys-top-colleges-black-and-hispanic-freshmen-enrollments-drop.html?pagewanted=all .
(iii) See ‘Diversity at CUNY’ by President of Community Service Society David R. Jones, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/22/opinion/diversity-at-cuny.html .
(iv) On this point, see Motoko Rich, “U.S. Students Still Lag Globally in Math and Science, Tests Show,” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/education/us-students-still-lag-globally-in-math-and-science-tests-show.html .
(v) See Ariel Kaminer, “College English Dept. Fights Class-Time Cuts,” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/nyregion/college-english-dept-fights-class-time-cuts.html .