Sun Microsystems Worldwide Education & Research Conference

March 7, 2006 | Speeches and Testimony

Thank you, and welcome to New York. It is my great pleasure to join you this afternoon. I am delighted to be able to talk to you about public higher education.

I am chancellor of a rather unique higher education institution here in New York City–and I’m also an alumnus of that institution. I know you heard from Chancellor Joel Klein and his ideas about New York City’s public school system, which is itself rather unique. Chancellor Klein and I work very closely together, and I have enormous admiration for the work he is doing.

In order to speak to you about the City University and public higher education, I need to introduce you, briefly, to CUNY:

  • The City University of New York is the nation’s largest urban public university. It is a system of 11 senior colleges, 6 community colleges, a graduate school (housing our Ph.D. program), a law school, a School of Professional Studies, a school of biomedical education, and a Graduate School of Journalism that will open in the fall. The colleges are located in all five boroughs of New York City.
  • CUNY began as one institution, City College, in 1847, specifically as a school that would educate “the whole people,” “the children of the rich and the poor.” Today, that is still CUNY’s central mission: to offer an opportunity for the highest quality college education to students of all backgrounds. (In fact, The Economist magazine did a story in January about CUNY, which was titled, “Rebuilding the American dream machine,” and said that CUNY “offers a neat parable of meritocracy revisited.”)
  • Our enrollment is at its highest level since 1975: more than 470,000 students (220,000 degree-credit and over 250,000 adult and continuing education students)
  • Almost half of all college students in the City of New York are attending CUNY
  • About 60% of new, first-time freshmen at CUNY are graduates of the NYC public school system
  • 62% of students are women
  • Approximate racial/ethnic makeup: 33% White; 29% Black; 24% Hispanic; 14% Asian. (CUNY is one of the nation’s top sources of doctoral, master’s, and baccalaureate degrees earned by minority students)
  • Students come from 167 countries and speak 119 languages
  • Approx. 6,300 full-time faculty
  • All told we employ about 40,000 people

So, CUNY is perhaps a little different among higher education institutions–but like most colleges and universities across the nation, it faces major challenges. Leading it can feel a bit like climbing a mountain (and thus the title of my talk today) because the challenges and the climate for public higher education today are very different than they were a generation ago.

To begin with, the United States is challenged by the ideal I mentioned earlier: educating the whole people. Public higher education is supposed to be affordable and accessible–the great equalizer. But there are clear socioeconomic and race gaps in college enrollment. The percentage of blacks and Hispanics graduating from college has increased, but it still lags behind the rate for whites. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, of every 100 kindergartners, 93 white students graduate high school compared to 87 black and 63 Hispanic students. Of the same cohort, 33 white students complete a bachelor’s degree by age 29, compared to just 18 black and 11 Hispanic students.

A big reason for the gap is that underrepresented minority students are more likely to come from low-income families. And schools with large numbers of poor students are generally underfunded. The authors of a recent book called “Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education” have pointed out that “[t]he odds of taking the SAT and other tests and doing very well on them are about six times higher for students from the top income quartile than for students from the bottom income quartile.”

In a densely populated city like New York, these differences are stark. Here we are at the Waldorf, in one of the richest neighborhoods in the country. Just blocks away are some of the poorest neighborhoods. That short distance equates to a gulf in terms of one’s access to educational opportunities.

That this is true today is appalling. And it is happening at a time when we need to be more competitive than ever, when all of our citizens need more education in order to fill workforce demands.

None of us seem able to figure this out. Why aren’t we educating more people? How do we reach people at an earlier age? How do we get the right teachers and schools?

Well, the truth is that it’s hard. Advanced study in challenging fields requires hard work and a great deal of preparation. Students need a solid academic foundation. They need great teachers. They need their interests to be stimulated early and reinforced often. So, anyone who tells you that the solution to this challenge is easy is not grounded in reality. It takes many components working well at the same time.

There is no question that better preparation is the key. No matter what a university does to strengthen its programs, if students are entirely unprepared for advanced study, they will struggle to complete a degree. At CUNY we have an extensive college preparatory program called College Now, which helps high school students take courses for college credit or get better prepared for college. It’s in over 225 high schools in New York City and is a wonderful, successful program.

But the director of that program would be quick to tell you that a student’s ability to go to college depends on a good deal more than taking the right classes. Some of you may remember the book, “The Tipping Point,” which a few years ago surmised that small changes can make an enormous difference to a movement or initiative, if they are the right small changes happening at the right time. This is true of college preparation, as well. College prep courses are critical, of course. But is there also counseling at the school? Are the parents involved? Are take-home materials written in more than one language? Are testing, test preparation, and application procedures spelled out? Are transportation, family, and financial-aid needs addressed?

Parents often ask me what they can do to help prepare their children. I always advise having many books at home, on all subjects, and spending time reading to children and with them. Turn off the television for half an hour, have everyone read his or her own book, and then talk about what you’ve read. An accumulation of small differences in K-12 education leads to huge college preparation gaps. We often take for granted the advantages students from higher-income families have–and all students must have those advantages.

Here in the New York City public high schools, the four-year graduation rate for black students was about 49 percent for the class of 2004. For Hispanic students it was 46 percent. As I’m sure Chancellor Klein told you, this is unconscionable.

Our challenge is also your challenge. You need this workforce. I know that Sun Microsystems continues to do a great deal to help primary and secondary institutions with partnerships and new models of instruction. Those partnerships are critical to improving access to higher education, and I am grateful to you for them.

Second, the United States faces a challenge on the global front, where it is losing market share to India, China, Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and other countries. A fast-moving global economy demands highly skilled and adaptable workers. Quite simply, the United States is failing to meet that need. In his book, The World Is Flat–yes, like everyone else, I can’t keep from referring to that title–Thomas Friedman tells an anecdote that perfectly illustrates how global connectedness and new technologies have changed economic competition. When he was a child, he says, his parents used to tell him to finish his dinner because people in China and India were starving. Today, he tells his children to finish their homework because people in China and India are starving for their jobs.

A National Science Foundation report points out that Asian countries regard universities as primary engines of economic growth, with their research leading to high-tech products. So, they are focusing their reforms on establishing graduate schools, building research facilities, and attracting the best science and engineering professors. These countries understand that you have to invest in education. They are training more students in math and science because they know they have to grow talent to meet their workforce needs.

South Korean universities awarded over 900 doctoral degrees in science and engineering in 1990–and 2,200 in 1997. In Taiwan, in about the last 20 years, the number of universities has risen from 109 to 159, and the number of students has almost tripled. Overall, in the year 2000, the proportion of the college-age population earning degrees in science and engineering fields was substantially larger in more than 16 countries in Asia and Europe than in the United States.

Again, preparation is a key to maintaining competitiveness. A 2003 study by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed that in math literacy skills of 15-year-olds, the United States ranked 24th of 29 OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries. In New York City, reports at the end of 2005 showed that eighth grade science test scores dropped eight percentage points in the past two years.

If things don’t change, and change soon, the United States will, I believe, be severely compromised. There is growing national and state recognition that the country seems to be slipping. We need a more global perspective, and we need to increase the number and the proficiency of students pursuing math, science, engineering, and technology studies.

Last year at CUNY, I designated this our “Decade of Science,” and we are moving forward in several ways: building and renovating science facilities; helping to prepare middle and high school students through a new “Science Now” program; training students to teach science and math in an urban setting through a brand-new Teacher Academy, in partnership with the New York City Department of Education; and increasing funding for Ph.D. students. All of us–as educators, researchers, and scientists–need to encourage every student and every teacher to achieve at the highest level.

Connected to the second challenge is the third: while the United States moves away from financial support of public higher education, other countries have moved toward it. So the gap widens. In the United States, the proportion of college budgets covered by public funding has decreased, while the share covered by student tuition has increased. Nationwide, between 1980 and 2000, the share of universities’ operating expenses paid for by state tax dollars was cut by 30 percent. At CUNY, we, too, have seen a dramatic drop in state aid over the last couple of decades. When adjusted for inflation, state appropriations to the University have declined by almost 34 percent since 1991.

A former president of the University of Michigan, and my friend, Jim Duderstadt, said it this way: “We used to be state-supported, then state-assisted, and now we are state-located.” And, as time goes on, we are in danger of becoming “state-molested.”

We clearly need new modes and a new voice at the top of government at every level: federal, state, and local. Universities simply must be given adequate funding to meet their operating requirements.

This has been a source of deep frustration for me, as you can imagine. Every year at this time–budget season–we make the rounds to state and city government to plead for additional funding. And every year, we find ourselves competing with health care, energy costs, and other escalating demands on the government. Yet I know that there is much more all of us must do to reach every student–at both the national and state levels. Unless we take steps to increase public support, keep tuition manageable, create new revenue sources within our universities, and aggressively seek external partnerships, the promise of equal opportunity that is at the heart of public higher education will continue to erode.

This year, my frustration grew to the point that I suggested a new approach to financing the University’s operations. I have proposed what I have called a “compact” among funding partners, including the state and city, the University, its alumni and friends, and its students. This investment plan asks the state and the city to cover the University’s mandatory costs–like energy and labor–and to pay 20 cents on the dollar to fund new initiatives in the University’s four-year Master Plan. (The Master Plan, which we are required to submit, spells out what we intend to accomplish over the next few years, such as hiring full-time faculty, focusing on new academic initiatives, and providing more student support.) The rest of the funding–80 cents on the dollar–would come from the University side, in the form of increased philanthropic revenues; internal redeployment; managed enrollment growth; and modest tuition increases, which would not exceed the Higher Education Price Index over the life of the plan.

In the past, tuition increases have been large and unpredictable because they come as a result of economic fluctuations, and are often used by the state as a way of paying for operational costs. Under my plan, tuition increases would be modest and would only be used to cover new programming initiatives–and faculty and students would be included in the process of deciding which initiatives to support. It’s their money; they should have a voice in how it’s spent.

We have received very supportive feedback on the compact proposal from national higher education leaders, the governor of New York, the media, and legislators, many of whom have also been frustrated by a funding stalemate. We are working right now with the state and the city to see if we can fully realize the plan’s potential. I believe a fresh approach is the only way we can begin to truly invest in public higher education and to ensure that every student has access to it.

The fourth and final challenge I’d like to mention will undoubtedly be familiar to all of you, which is that the way people interface with a college or university is very different today because of technology. It’s not all bricks and mortar–or, as Arthur Levine of Columbia’s Teachers College has said, universities need to be both bricks and mortar and clicks and mortar. Of course, the “clicks” run the gamut from lectures by podcast to online courses to high-performance computing for advanced research to computerized purchasing systems.

I mentioned at the beginning of my talk that CUNY was a little bit different. Our technology challenges are a little bit different, too. Part of what I’ve focused on as chancellor is to strengthen the idea of an integrated university. With 19 campuses spread out across five boroughs, each with a different history and a different physical setting–some with high-rises and some with traditional green acreage–integration is a challenge, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to operate efficiently. Right now we are replacing our old mainframe systems with ERP [Enterprise Resource Planning] software, and this will be a transformational change for the University. By integrating our computer systems, we not only save duplication and avoid confusion, but we are also able to better equalize the University. Regardless of what campus you are on or what its budget is, your access to human resources, finance, and student systems is the same. This change will not come quickly or easily, but with a system as large as ours is, some degree of consistency and integration is necessary if we want to remain responsive to students.

Technology’s advances and questions have also become clearer to me as we get ready to offer our first online bachelor’s degree in the fall. Its development grew out of a very real challenge: nationally, baccalaureate completion rates at four-year public colleges in 2005 were at their lowest level in 20 years. At CUNY alone, we know that since 1999, we have had 65,000 students leave the University in good standing, students who are not re-enrolling at any other university. This is a tragedy. The dominant reason that students “stop out” is that we haven’t changed our way of thinking. These are not students in poor academic standing. These are good students who have to work full-time, or provide care for children, or offer financial support to a family. Up to now, we have offered them only one way of connecting with the University: come to campus and sit in class. We have to get beyond that.

The full online bachelor’s degree in communication and culture we will offer is intended to help working adults return to college and complete their degrees, and to provide access for students with disabilities. It is a traditional degree offered by experienced CUNY faculty that will eliminate the scheduling difficulties that often cause students in good standing to “stop out.” We anticipate an initial class of about 300 students this fall, growing to almost 3,000 students within five years.

But I think there is much more thinking to be done about this. We have to think differently about the university model, beyond online, beyond asynchronous learning. We need new kinds of modalities. We need to figure out where the quality control is, where the assurance of standards comes from. The online degree is a big step forward, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We have to ensure that every means of accessing a university comes with the support and the rigor that students deserve.

Again, Sun Microsystems has been a leader in helping to develop strategies for higher education to integrate technology into its academic and support systems, and I commend you for pushing the education community to reconsider its mission and the ways it is serving those trying to access it.

Thank you. I’d be happy to take any questions.