Remarks at the 2013 CUNY Financial Management Conference: “Optimizing Resources for Student Success”

November 16, 2013 | News

I am delighted to join you this morning.  My thanks to Matt Sapienza and Marc Shaw for inviting me.  In the immortal words of Keith Richards—who appears himself to be immortal—“It’s great to be here.  It’s great to be anywhere.”  Keith, of course, was No. 1 on the ‘Who’s Likely to Die’ list for 10 consecutive years.  He expressed great disappointment when he was dropped from that roll.

I’ve been involved in university administration for nearly 40 years.  Indeed, this is the first time since I’m four that I’m not in school.  But in all that time I’ve never been asked to deliver a keynote address.  I’ve certainly heard my share of them.  For the most part, they’ve been something attendees have suffered through while waiting for the business of the conference to begin.  Their only virtue, as far as I’ve been able to judge, has been their generally early start.  As such, they function as a welcome interstice between the morning fog induced by travel and the engaged dialogue of breakout sessions.

But properly imagined, they can be something more than a series of loosely conjoined banalities.  A keynote is, of course, a musical term, signifying the first and harmoniously fundamental tone of a scale—an organizing sound, if you will, that both anticipates and undergirds the tonal variations to follow.

In a few minutes, I’d like to identify two such themes whose complex interplay defines the challenge and opportunity we face at the City University.

But first, let me step aside from my text to thank you for all that you do for this university.  Apropos structuring tropes, I could invoke that of the bildungsroman and explain that in the four and a half months that I’ve been serving as interim chancellor, I’ve gained a new appreciation for financial management.  While it’s certainly true that I’ve learned a good deal that I did not know about such matters, I needed no lessons to appreciate the critical significance of the fiscal side of our house.  At the Graduate Center, I was privileged to work with Sebastian Persico and his staff for a decade.  I learned that vision without sound management was useless; that a partnership between academic and financial leadership was essential to the health and well-being of any college.  That lesson has stood me in very good stead.  Sebastian, my personal thanks—and my more general thanks to all of you.  I know that you are responsible for much of CUNY’s heavy lifting, and I’m very grateful to have the benefit of your talent and your stamina.

You will need, I fear, that stamina today.  You have a full slate of activities, discussions about everything from capital funding to credit accumulation to TAP recommendations.  I wish you well in that important exercise.

But before we turn to the granular, or to the keynotes I wish to sound, let me speak to the reason Marc and Matthew have gathered us together.

As the conference title declares, we’re focused on student success.  In your breakout sessions, you’ll be talking about the means to success—the strategies and actions (Reso-A funding, continuing education, alternative revenue sources) that we employ to get to the end, to success itself.  I’d like to speak for a moment not about the means but about the end.

Success, of course, can be defined in wildly different ways.  (We could start, for example, with Bob Dylan—as all things should start—and the great line from “Love Minus Zero, No Limit”: “She knows there’s no success like failure / And that failure’s no success at all.”  I have no idea what that line means, but it’s gnomic enough to provide an opportunity for hope.)

More prosaically, most of us would probably agree that “student success” is about creating opportunities for better lives, for different lives—for creating the capacity to see the world in a new way.  We impose metrics on that capacity: grades, credits, degrees.  But beyond metrics, even those as significant as graduation, is something greater, something much harder to achieve: a transformation in our intellectual engagement with the world; the ability to create, connect, and conceive.

With an end that challenging, that elusive, that essential, that honorable, it’s clear that the means we deploy must be well orchestrated.  Every university promises advancement and lifelong learning and, yes, success.  So how are we to make good on our promise, to distinguish ourselves among a sea of competitors?

Simply put: we have to do more.  And we have to do it better.  Higher education is a highly competitive business.  Public higher education is increasingly seen as a private investment, not a public good—a choice in a marketplace, rather than an elevation of our common humanity.  We are a long way from the Morrill Act, the GI Bill, and the founding of the National Academies; America’s appetite for supporting education has been diverted by concerns about health care, tax relief, housing, and myriad other lines on a ledger.  It is well worth noting that in 1960, two-thirds of every household included someone under the age of 18.  Today, that fraction has been halved.

Here in New York, we’ve been fortunate to have had the support of a five-year tuition plan, and a robust state financial aid program in TAP.  But the state’s delicate balance among operational support, TAP funding, and tuition will always be in flux, never guaranteed.  And we can see what’s happening across the country.  On average, states are spending 28 percent less than they did in 2008 on public colleges and universities.  Not coincidentally, average tuition at four-year public colleges has grown by almost the same amount—27 percent.  In states such as Arizona and California, it’s increased by more than 70 percent.

In this environment, pressure to make college more affordable and accountable should not be surprising.  The broad parameters of President Obama’s higher education reform initiative—funding tied to performance, a push for innovation and transparency, and reduced student debt—are not far removed from our own conversations today: optimizing resources and promoting student success.   That is to say, doing more with less.

But if student success is our priority—the focus of our efforts—then our outcomes must be better, our pace of change faster.  A number of issues require meaningful attention.  Some examples:

  • Exploring the ways we deliver academic services is critical.  Technology is one piece of that concern, but such consideration also involves the shape of our degrees.  What about three-year degrees?  What about degrees based on competency, not credit accumulation?
  • And what about instruction?  Is it possible to significantly increase the percentage of our courses taught by full-time faculty members?  Have we thought through the long-term implications of our growing dependence on adjunct instructors?  Is it possible to address the salary disparity between public and private institutions?  How do we recruit and retain faculty with lower salaries and higher workloads?
  • We also need to push the conversations we’ve begun about student recruitment, both graduate and undergraduate.  How aggressively are we reaching prospective students, how persuasive is our message, and how targeted and effective is our marketing?

There are many more issues that need candid and careful discussion of our ends—followed by strategic and creative thinking about the means to achieve those purposes.  To be sure, faculty and students may not rush to embrace change.  Universities are ancient entities that evolve at a glacial pace.  But we must move forward.  We must embrace a broader conception of what public higher education will look like in 20 years—without losing sight of our core mission, a 21st-century version of what the Roots’ Questlove calls the bridge: “to connect brilliant have-nots to the land of haves.”

To the keynotes then.  They are two.  The first, a deeply resonant and ominous chord suggesting mounting force.  Think a Bach organ fugue, or for those of us who can’t hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger, think Nosferatu, or any vampire movie for that matter—the music of the undead’s rising from his casket.  The second, a lighter motif, the soaring string passages of a Mozart arpeggio.  The two locked in contrapuntal play.

The darker strains speak to the climate in which we operate, the threats we confront.  Let me note five of these chords.

First, on the federal level, the development of a higher education scorecard—a major component of President Obama’s higher education plan—continues to move forward.  As you’ll recall, there are four components to the president’s initiative: 1) tying Pell grant funding to college affordability, access, and outcome; 2) establishing a scorecard to measure college performance; 3) supporting innovative programs that reduce the cost of college with federal grants administered through the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education; and 4) encouraging state governments to link operational funding to college performance.

Given current political realities, there is very little chance that additional funding will become available, but the establishment of a scorecard and the attendant pressure that will result from that action is certain.  The broadly shared concern, of course, is that reliable and comprehensive data necessary to construct a meaningful scorecard do not currently exist, and that in their absence, college achievement will be undervalued or misreported. Consequently, unintended consequences and perverse disincentives are likely to proliferate.

Given the speed with which this initiative is moving, it’s critical that the University be proactive. With the help of an Ad Hoc Committee, chaired by President Ricardo Fernández, we are working with the American Council on Education and other organizations to contribute to discussions about the structuring of the scorecard.  With the support of the Office of Institutional Research, we are developing a template that speaks to the needs of diverse public systems which we hope will influence the ongoing national conversation.

The second of our challenges pertains to the state.  We have profited from the fiscal stability afforded by our five-year tuition plan and its attendant maintenance-of-effort provisions.  But we bear a growing share of mandatory costs increases and confront a widening delta between tuition levels and TAP coverage.  We are also mindful of the current work of a state commission shared by Carl McCall and former Governor George Pataki charged with identifying $2-3 billion in tax relief.

With regard to TAP, we submitted the University’s recommendations on TAP reform to the state on October 1.  SUNY intends to submit its report this week.  Although SUNY serves a different student population, both systems face similar challenges. Most notably, both SUNY and CUNY are required to fund the difference between tuition and TAP support for fully eligible students. That provision has the capacity to absorb fully enhanced tuition revenues.  As part of our ongoing efforts to address TAP reform, I met recently with Senator Kenneth LaValle and Speaker Sheldon Silver and shared with them our concerns and our recommendations for productive adjustments to the program.

Third, on the city side, we very much look forward to working with Mayor-elect DeBlasio and are greatly encouraged by the prominence CUNY has been given in his public statements.  In building our relationship with him, however, we will need to attend carefully first, to the availability of funding to support the new initiatives he’s discussed; second, to underscoring the University’s research capacities, a critical part of our public mission; and third, to supporting a productive collaboration  between our city and our state partners.

To those ends, we are working closely with the newly elected city government leaders.  Presidents Jeremy Travis and Marcia Keizs are serving on the mayor-elect’s transition team, and Presidents Felíx Matos-Rodríguez and Rudy Crew are at work as members of Comptroller-elect Scott Stringer’s transition team.  And we are working with Public Advocate-elect Letitia James on hosting town-hall meetings in each of the five boroughs.  Senior Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson has organized a CUNY Government Relations Conference on December 17 with the theme, “Transitions Ahead: Maintaining Momentum.”  And we are, of course, pursuing every avenue to contribute meaningfully to the success of the new administration.

The fourth challenge we face relates to the current labor climate.  How will we reconcile state and city agreements?  And how do we address our continued reliance on adjuncts, currently at 13,000?  Our investments over the past decade have resulted in a net 23 percent increase in full-time faculty.  A remarkable number that.  However, unprecedented enrollment growth has impeded our ability to increase the percentage of our courses taught by full-time faculty.  This year we will continue our efforts by hiring 325 new faculty members.  And through our proposed new budget request on the table today, we hope to hire 425 more.  It is my strong belief that nothing is as important to the future of this University as continuing to build a world-class faculty.

And, finally, the fifth challenge we face is internal.  Change does not come easy to universities, but higher education is in a period of rapid transformation, and we must keep pace.  The development of new revenue streams, the better use of our technological capacities, enhanced recruitment, particularly at the graduate level, a more nimble, market-sensitive process for degree development are only a few of the areas that require—and are receiving—attention.

These are the chords against which we are arraigned.

But there is a second, an oppositional chord.  My friends, we’re Mozart in this pas de deux.  The defenders of the university against the forces that would blunt its remarkable progress.  The arching trumpets and the soaring strings.  Always optimistic, always creative, always inventive.  Our students deserve no less.  They come from across the globe and they expect a university that is global in its outlook, nimble in its operations.  If we want students to succeed—to learn ways of thinking, considering, and seeing that will transform their engagement with the world—then we must be a university of great ideas, of noble ends, as well as one of equally great execution, of creative means.  Miles Davis’ advice is germane here: “Don’t play what’s there,” Miles said, “play what’s not there.”

If we are not up to the task, we’ll generate not harmony but the collision of chords—dissonance.  Think Stockhausen, late Webern: entropy, the failure of our mission.

The contrapuntal beauty of the great fugues must be our goal:  genius triumphing over discord and collapse.

I look forward with confidence to the music you’ll create, the ideas you’ll launch.  Much depends on you, my friends.  Enjoy the day.