14 Years of Big Challenges, Bigger Victories

On April 12, Chancellor Matthew Goldstein announced he will be stepping down this summer after leading CUNY for 14 years, longer than any other chancellor in University history. On April 17, he talked with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer about the changes he’s made, his legacy and the challenges ahead for the next chancellor.


Photo by Yunghi Kim


BRIAN LEHRER: Can I start with a CUNY 101 question? What’s The City University for, and how do you see its mission compared to SUNY or to private colleges?

CHANCELLOR MATTHEW GOLDSTEIN:  Well, we are the largest urban university system in the United States. A dominant number of our students commute each day as I did when I went to City College, but at the end of the day we want to give a strong educational experience to our students and we are committed to work on the full spectrum of academic readiness. Many of our students have the option to go to universities of their choice because their academic backgrounds are quite exceptional, and other students need to be remediated because they had not had the kind of K through 12 preparation that we would like to see. So as I say, we look to educate the “whole people” and I think over the past 14 years my whole focus was to try to reform and redirect much of our energies to really secure opportunities for that full spectrum of students.

Q: Let’s go back to the beginning of your time as chancellor, 1999, when the big change that you instituted … was to end open enrollment at the major four-year colleges but keep it for the community colleges, open enrollment meaning that any New York City public high school graduate automatically qualifies for CUNY. Why did you believe that was necessary and how would you say it has worked out?

A: I think it has worked out splendidly. As you indicated or at least alluded to in your introductory remarks, we have the largest enrollment today in the University’s history and so many, many students are coming to the University in part because they view it as a place where they can get a valued degree, and by valued degree I mean reputation in the marketplace and cost.
Why did I look to implement that progressive program? Very simply, as an educator — I have taught mathematics from freshmen students to directing doctoral students — one of the things that you learn … is that it is very, very difficult to target a curriculum when there is great variance in the academic preparedness of the students. Everybody loses. The poorly qualified students get lost very quickly because the level of instruction is higher than they can accommodate, and the much more prepared students oftentimes are bored, and they want to see a much higher level of instruction. So what I was hoping to do by this reform was to reduce variance in the academic preparedness of the students so that we can target the educational experience… and I think it was exactly the right thing to do. Our retention rates are much higher, our graduation rates are higher, and students are going on to do important things. So I think it was one of the most progressive things that we did here at the University during my tenure.

Chanc-articlesQ: A New York Times article last May concluded that the effect of the changes that you were just describing has been what many on both sides of the 1990s debate predicted. The top four-year colleges — Brooklyn, Queens, Baruch, City College and Hunter — rose in status, but black and Hispanic enrollment declined, and that has become more pronounced during the recession … as more middle-class, higher-achieving high school students apply to CUNY because it is so affordable. How true would you say that is and how much of a concern?

A: I think that that story was seriously flawed for the following reasons. It is not where you start, it is where you end up with a degree, and that’s what our reforms ultimately succeeded in doing. If a student is not ready to get into, say, Baruch College where today the average SAT scores are probably around 1230, but ultimately wants to get a Baruch degree because it is viewed in so many quarters as a valued degree, we give students an opportunity to start in an institution within CUNY that will prepare them and remediate their backgrounds and then go on and finish at Baruch, for example.
If you look at the overall racial balance of the top four-year institutions, they look very different than the entering class. Yes, it is less black and Hispanic in the entering class, but when you look at the graduating class of these institutions, Hispanic enrollment has gone up and black enrollment has gone down a bit but not very much at all. So at the end of the day, for me it is where you get your degree, not where you enter the institution.

Q: And remediation is still a huge issue. It was reported just recently that 80 percent of New York City high school grads entering the community colleges today need remedial courses before qualifying for college level work. Is that 80 percent CUNY’s own number, your own number?

A: That is our number. Eighty percent of the students, approximately, who enter our seven community colleges need some form of remediation. These are students coming from largely the public schools but other institutions as well. It is a number that is much too large. It is a number that concerns us, and it is a number that necessitates a lot of money that we have to spend to remediate these students to get them ready for college-level work. So those are the facts as we know them today.

Chancellor Goldstein teaches a calculus course at Hunter College

Chancellor Goldstein teaches a calculus course at Hunter College

Q: Does that suggest an ongoing failure of the K-through-12 education system in the city even after 12 years of the Bloomberg administration, when as we know he came into office saying his big legacy would be improving K through 12?

A: What it means to me is that the University has to work even more closely with the DOE schools. We probably have greater linkages and channels of communication with the schools that feed into CUNY than any other university in the United States. We cannot ignore the connections that we need to make to ensure that students in K through 12 understand what they need to do to prepare themselves. I am not pointing fingers at anybody. What I think we need to do is just to communicate and make sure that the teachers, the curricula, at the schools … need to be aligned with what the expectations are at a university.

Q: You say the University needs to work even more closely with the public K-through-12 system. What more can the University do?

A: One of the things that I am concerned about and I am very supportive of, is the new common core curricula that will be instituted in most states … and certainly in New York State. When the students take these examinations, I suspect that the preparedness metric is going to point much more south than not. So when you say what more can we do, I think we must be vigilant in working with … the common core curricula even more aggressively than we were before.

Q: Another of your initiatives at CUNY has been to establish an Honors College that requires a high school average well over 90 and SAT scores … close to 1400 out of 1600 to get in. That means you are competing for students who could get into prestigious private colleges or other colleges. Who goes to the Honors College today?

A: We get about 10,500 applicants for the Macaulay Honors College, and we are only able to provide seats for about 400. So it is a very selective institution, highly sought after. I go to every graduation, and I am just delighted when I see these students getting into the best medical schools, law schools, coveted Ph.D. programs, into the best training programs of major corporations.
Who goes to Macaulay? Some of the finest, most well-prepared students across New York City. Many of them are immigrant students, the first in their class and first in their families to go to college. It is a wonderful, diverse group of students, and it is a great shot in the arm to the University to attract these extraordinarily talented students. It has had a residual effect as well in that many of the students who are rejected find out about the City University in a much more in-depth way and decide to come and avail themselves of other kinds of scholarships that we provide. So it has had a wonderful effect and something I am deeply proud and excited about.

Q: One of the critiques of the Honors College when you launched it was that the City University is primarily for those students without other financial means, and students who did that well in high school can always get financial aid at other schools. So why spend tax dollars and limited CUNY resources on them?

A: I will go back to what I said to you earlier in our discussion: We are here to educate the “whole people” and by the whole people I don’t mean their ethnicity or their race. I think the “whole people” also means the full spectrum of academic ability. Much of what we do at the Honors College is funded with monies developed through fundraising and yes, there is some tax levy money, but we spend a lot of money for people who are poorly prepared and there is no reason why we shouldn’t spend money for people who are very well prepared.

Q: About five years ago, you told the Center for an Urban Future that you have been able to make your biggest changes through “enlightened management,” and I know you didn’t just mean yourself, but meaning with little private money and no real investment on the public side. Those were your words. But most people think of CUNY as a publicly funded school. So what did you mean by no real investment on the public side and would you characterize it that way today?

Matthew Goldstein, co-chair of the New York City Regional Economic Development Council, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces funding for the regions.

Matthew Goldstein, co-chair of the New York City Regional Economic Development Council, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces funding for the regions.

A: Well, you know we haven’t had strong investment over a sustained period of time for our operating budget, but I must say that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and I must give a shout-out to him … he allowed both CUNY and SUNY to generate levels of support in ways that we were never able to do before … by allowing us to have a more predictable tuition policy, and second, creating a maintenance-of-effort provision, which meant that in year two our operating budget from the state would not dip below the operating budget that the state gave in year one. That has given us a sense of stability that we have been able to capitalize upon. It has enabled us to develop what we call the CUNY Compact, a new financing model that requires various stakeholders to participate in the development of our operating budget. When I came in in 1999, the University was raising under $50 million a year where now, because it’s in a very different place, it’s raising close to a quarter of a billion dollars a year. So that fundraising has become a significant component of supporting our operating budget.
So when I say “enlightened manage-ment,” it is starting almost tabula rasa in the way in which we find creative ways to not only manage the institution through productivity measures that never were used before, but also to find different mechanisms to generate revenue and capital to invest in the University.
On the other hand, we’ve had wonderful input of capital dollars, and the University when you look at it today looks so different than it was, say, 15 years ago, because we’ve literally spent billions of dollars on the capital side of our budget, which has been quite robust and made the University look and feel so different than it was a few years ago.

Q: Circling back for a minute to the two-year versus the four-year colleges, we’ve gotten a couple of comments coming in, I guess, from CUNY faculty members who think on the opposite side of what we were talking about before, whether it is too restrictive for lower-income or black and Latino students to get into the four-years, that the transfer from community college to the four-year schools for junior and senior year has become too easy and in accomplishing that, you’ve watered down the curriculum for the four-year schools so that people could succeed, and I gather there is a faculty lawsuit about this. Can you comment on that?

A: I think that is totally ill-informed by the data. Let me give you just a metric that will vitiate that comment totally. When you look at what happens to students who start at our community colleges and then transfer to our senior colleges on a going-forward basis, the successes of the students who transfer relative to the successes of the students who started as first-time freshmen, are almost indistinguishable. That’s why I said it is not where you start. It is where you get your degree. And the new Pathways initiative, which has had a fair amount of faculty push-back, and I am not debating that, but I think this is again one of those reforms that over a period of years — like the changing of the number of credits from 128 to 120, like remanding remediation to our two-year institutions — will show over time that it was the right and proper thing for the University, and that the students are going to succeed in greater numbers with no dilution. And, in fact, I think the entire process is going to be accretive.
You know, at the end of the day when you force so many students to take an inordinate amount of general education courses, you restrict their ability to be much more bold and imaginative in taking much more rigorous courses that they may not have had the options to take, and that’s what these reforms are ultimately doing. So I dispute that quite aggressively.

Q: Very briefly, congratulations on the Graduate School of Journalism. That’s only been in existence for a few years and I can tell you we already get some of our best news employees from the Graduate School of Journalism as they finish up and also as interns while they are going. So we can talk from WNYC’s perspective, at least from my perspective of that as a recent CUNY success. Just tell us how you see the job ahead for your successor?

A: You know, The City University of New York is a complicated place. It is a big place. There are going to be a number of challenges that my successor will have to confront. One is the vigilance in getting more and more private money … given the weak balance sheets of states in general, especially after this very nasty recession that we’ve experienced (private money) will be necessary in order to keep the University going.
I think technology must have a much more prominent position in this university as it is with other universities and we must be very, very vigilant to our very basic mission, and that is to educate to the best degree that we can this full spectrum of students. That’s going to require care and imaginativeness and doggedness in the way in which we manage the institution.