Chancellor James B. Milliken

Chancellor James B. Milliken

Appointed to start on June 1, 2014, James B. Milliken serves as Chancellor of The City University of New York. »

“Education Update” Breakfast Honoring Outstanding Educators of the Year

June 2, 2011 | Speeches and Testimony

Thank you, Pola.  I am delighted to join all of you today.  Pola, I must begin by thanking you for your outstanding work at “Education Update,” which we always say is required reading at CUNY.  And I am very pleased to congratulate all of today’s honorees, including those receiving the Distinguished Leaders in Education Award: Michelle Anderson, dean of the CUNY School of Law; Harold McGraw III, CEO of the McGraw-Hill Companies; and Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

I can’t think of three leaders more deserving of our recognition.  Each has taken bold steps to transform our educational enterprise, to encourage innovation and accountability, and, perhaps most important, to put students at the forefront of every decision and every change.  They teach us that whether we’re talking about first graders or professional students, college freshmen or junior high schoolers, our students’ educational experience is the most important step in developing creative, responsible, thoughtful citizens.  It’s abundantly clear that our students’ future, and the future of this country, depends on making education—transformational, revolutionary education—our highest priority.

For years we’ve been focused on that same goal at CUNY.  And today we’re celebrating some of the strides we’ve made, including our record-high enrollment (262,000 degree-seeking students) and our successful students.  They have demonstrated their talent again this year by garnering a Rhodes Scholarship (CUNY’s seventh), two Truman Scholarships (the seventh in seven years), four Goldwater Scholarships, and four National Science Foundation grants.  We’re also celebrating our tremendous faculty, the recipients of almost every honor possible—Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, Pulitzer Prizes, and Oscars—as well as our colleges—six, soon to be seven community colleges, 11 baccalaureate colleges, and our graduate and professional schools.

We have made these strides because we’ve done what all of us recognize as the fundamental task of educators: to prioritize academic quality and to take bold steps to initiate transformational change. 

This has been our focus since I became chancellor in 1999, when we initiated a series of changes to reinvigorate the University.  We raised academic standards, removed remediation from our senior colleges, and tiered the system to give students clear expectations about their college experience and their academic progress.  We developed a Performance Management Process to hold our colleges accountable for reaching annual goals, including the improvement of graduation rates.  We created new schools and hired strong leadership (exhibit A is here today: Michelle Anderson), and we built cutting-edge facilities, from science buildings to libraries to residence halls.  We’re still doing these things, because we are deeply committed to creating an environment in which students understand that hard work and academic quality are valued and expected.

But there are still challenges we have yet to meet.  In a system of CUNY’s size and diversity, our students are still not able to move nimbly from one campus to another—or even, at times, within a single campus.  They are often stymied in their academic progress because of the complexity and inconsistency among the general education and transfer policies at the many colleges in our integrated system.  The result is confusion and frustration, the accumulation of excess credits with no gain in academic engagement. 

If we want to take the next step in advancing the University’s academic transformation—if we want to continue to put students first and create a college experience that is the rigorous intellectual exploration it should be—then we must address a reformation of our general education framework.  And so we have begun the next phase of CUNY’s transformation.

This will be a familiar journey to many of you.  It’s certainly not new ground at CUNY.  Let me quote from a Middle States report on the University: “Articulation between the two-year and four-year colleges is a pressing problem….The goal should be acceptance by the four-year colleges of the entire block of transfer work taken in a university two-year college….”  Pretty straightforward, right?  Except for the fact that this Middle States report was written in 1967.  It gives new measure to what we mean when we talk about the glacial pace of higher education. 

In the meantime, students’ progress continues to suffer.  As the nation’s largest urban public system, CUNY must function as an integrated system.  We owe nothing less to the students we serve. 

So we’ve embarked on an initiative we’re calling “Pathways to Degree Completion.”  Let me share the rationale behind this initiative, because I think our purposes speak directly to the student-centered leadership we’re celebrating today:

  1. To raise the quality of content in general education courses across the University, at both the community and senior colleges, by aligning curricula to rigorous, agreed-upon learning objectives.  A precondition of student success is to define competencies and expectations, to make clear the outcomes that the University as a whole values.  Such a review enables courses to be refined, refreshed, and updated, which is essential to ensuring the value of a CUNY degree.
  2. To give students more opportunities to explore and take chances, and to study in more upper-division classes than they can now access due to the highly prescriptive nature of current general education requirements.  College is meant to be a time of exploration, of intellectual curiosity and inquiry among different disciplines, a time of defining your own questions and seeking ways to answer them.  Ensuring a well-rounded experience is essential, but too many boundaries leaves little room to make original choices and discoveries.
  3. To put CUNY more in line with the number of credits now required by most U.S. universities in their general education framework.  College curricula requirements at most universities are roughly divided among one-third general education courses, one-third courses in the major, and one-third elective courses.  CUNY’s average number of general education credits is well above the norm, leaving students with little flexibility and a good deal of confusion.  We want to develop graduates who have spent more time deeply engaged in scholarly pursuits rather than in deciphering complex curricular requirements.
  4. To remove uncertainty from the process of transferring among CUNY colleges by establishing a University-wide standard: a 30-credit common core of general education courses for all undergraduate colleges, plus an additional 12 credits of general education for use by baccalaureate colleges.

Reforming general education is a complex process that will take time—because our goal is to be guided not by numbers but by learning outcomes.  Ensuring that our students have a rigorous, comprehensive, and cutting-edge college education is our priority, just as it has been since 1999.  That’s why the really difficult work ahead—defining competencies and reviewing courses—must be faculty driven.  I love to brag about the world-class faculty we have at CUNY, and for good reason: they are scholar-teachers who care deeply about their disciplines, their students, and their responsibilities as educators.  It is their expertise we depend on, and it is their collaboration that will make this next step in CUNY’s transformation a success.  For the first time in CUNY’s history, faculty from both senior and community colleges will engage in system-wide conversations about the content and standards of general education.  And it’s no accident that I have asked Michelle Anderson, along with the president of our Graduate Center, Bill Kelly, to guide the next phase of our general education work: transformations require strong leaders, and, as today’s award demonstrates, Michelle is one of the best.

Forgive my enthusiasm for this subject, but I am inspired by the bold work of today’s honorees.  Your efforts are a reminder that we cannot become mired in complacency.  We serve our students best when we think big and act courageously, as Michelle Anderson, Geoffrey Canada, and Harold McGraw have done.  Small ideas generally yield small results.  It’s a focus on the big picture—an unrelenting fixation on student success and academic quality—that has the potential for the greatest gains.  Thank you all for your outstanding contributions to that goal.