The Chancellor’s Desk: Articulating Core Values

Across CUNY’s campuses, financial managers are reviewing budget and investment plans in anticipation of next year’s state and city budgets. And as I always remind our managers, any financial planning must start with an emphasis on our core values.

All of us should take great pride in CUNY’s historic tradition of access and quality. Readers of Gen. Colin Powell’s book It Worked for Me know just how important the CUNY mission is. In his book, the general points out that, as a black student, he couldn’t attend West Point, the Citadel, the Virginia Military Academy, Texas A & M, and other officer-producing schools. He writes about what he calls his “undistinguished academic years” at City College:

“My city believed that kids like me deserved a shot at the top…poor kids like me with immigrant parents, Jews who couldn’t get into other schools because they were Jews, young adults with jobs who could only go to night school…kids who lived at home and came in every morning by subway or bus. Education like the one I got at CCNY was how the tired, poor, hungry masses yearning to breathe free were integrated into America’s social and economic life….Though I walked away with a diploma by the skin of my teeth, I did come out of college with a wonderful liberal arts education. I found in the years to come that I was able to perform well alongside my West Point, Citadel, VMI, and A&M buddies.”

I’m enormously proud that these values haven’t changed. At CUNY, we ensure that there are many portals of entry to the University and ample opportunities for students to find programs suited to their needs. We value degree completion, and we value graduation with a degree that reflects academic rigor and integrity and is respected in the marketplace. We value the fundamental role faculty play in our academic enterprise.

Today, public universities educate three-quarters of our country’s undergraduates. And since a college degree is associated with so many benefits—from greater lifetime earnings to better health to more civic participation—public institutions have a significant responsibility to the well-being and economic development of the country itself.

That requires special attention to at least three essential issues:

• First, public universities serve a student body of great variance—not only in terms of preparation and academic interests, but also in terms of family income. At our country’s competitive colleges, three-quarters of the students come from families in the top half of income distribution. At our nation’s community colleges, about 80 percent of the students are from low-income households.

CUNY’s unique system encompasses a range of institutions and an equally broad range of students. This year, 38 percent of our undergraduates reported household incomes below $20,000. And while nationally about 28 percent of undergraduates receive Pell grants—which are based in part on family income—at CUNY about 58 percent of undergraduates are Pell grant recipients.

• A second issue is the shift in how public universities are funded. As state support has dwindled, tuition costs have grown. Nationwide, from 2000 to 2010, real funding per FTE student fell by 21 percent.

• Third, it is projected that by 2018, 63 percent of jobs will require education beyond high school. As our own CUNY Jobs Task Force found, employers are increasingly looking for college graduates with strong analytical, communication, and problem-solving skills.

In such an environment, it is essential to remember CUNY’s core mission and values—including our commitment to providing what we have called “the CUNY Value.” The “value” is providing an outstanding education that doesn’t break the bank. It is an assurance to every student that the historic promise of access and opportunity is as true today as it was in 1847.

To meet that promise, all of us must be more innovative, responsive, and efficient than ever before.

• We must pay careful attention to our students’ experience at every step and, wherever possible, find ways to enhance the quality and minimize the uncertainty.

• We must ensure that our state and city partners fully understand our students’ needs, and we must maximize all possible sources of revenue.

• We must be advocates for public higher education, ensuring that families across the city understand the need for advanced credentials and the preparation and rigor those credentials demand.

To be the university of the future Colin Powells, we must be the smarter university, the more creative university, and the university that cares about getting it right more than any other. That mindset must permeate every corner of the University.

A new Macaulay Honors College brochure includes a particularly memorable quote from a student: “I was attracted to Macaulay because they make the investment in you, not the other way around.” It’s our job to make sure every student at the University feels that way.