To regard teachers—in our entire educational system, from the primary grades to the university—as the priests of our democracy is not to indulge in hyperbole. It is the special task of teachers to foster those habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens. —Justice Felix Frankfurter, Wieman v. Updegraff
In 1998, as I came off my first four-year term as chair of the University Faculty Senate of the City University of New York, the new board chair, Benno Schmidt, was asked for his view of faculty rights and authority. Here was an individual who had been a high administrative officer at Yale and Columbia as well as a law professor. In sum, his answer was, “To carry out trustee policy.” If that is shared governance, then what is authoritarianism?
As individuals responsible for the broad oversight of an institution, the selection of top management, and the implementation of policy, university trustees in the private sector usually are expected to fulfill a fiduciary role—that is, to expand the endowment. Presumably this service is its own reward; trustees are not expected to benefit financially from the institutions they oversee. When they make the headlines it usually means that they have either exercised poor judgment or crossed ethical lines, as in the case, respectively, of the University of Virginia in 2012 or the fundamentalist Hillsdale College in rural Michigan in 1999, where the trustees defended their president to the last moment, even after discovering that he had been engaged in a seventeen-year affair with his daughter-in-law. Then we have the 2011 headlinegrabbing scandal at Pennsylvania State University, where the famous football coach Joe Paterno was pulled from his pedestal and the red-faced trustees had to remove the top administration.
Are these rare episodes? Is trustee judgment so reliable?
Who Are the Trustees?
Frequently drawn from elite corporate backgrounds and, for public institutions, from pools of politically connected people, trustees usually have to be educated about shared governance. Corporate or political ties are scarcely reliable indices of the wisdom necessary to oversee institutions of higher learning, and some trustees, sadly, prove resistant to learning. Of late, following waves of (largely conservative) attacks on the quality of college graduates, some boards have moved into areas of curriculum, degree requirements, and related educational matters.
At CUNY, the governor appoints ten trustees, including the chair, and the New York City mayor picks five (this has been the case since 1976). The chair of the university’s student senate sits on the board ex officio, with voting privileges, and the chair of the university’s faculty senate sits ex officio without a vote, as I did for six years. You can figure out which of these two is courted and respected.
The trustees appoint a chancellor to oversee the eighteen undergraduate and five graduate and professional institutions. With the appointment of Schmidt as board chair by Republican governor George Pataki in 1999–2000, the management of the colleges was centralized, the chancellor became a CEO in the eyes of the trustees (and in reality), and the college presidents essentially became deans. How did this happen?
The university had been in the crosshairs of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who unleashed a campaign bashing CUNY following his election in 1995. Much of his position came from the conservative Manhattan Institute, which openly disdained the generous admissions policies of public higher education. Giuliani set up a commission to investigate the supposedly dysfunctional system. The commission was headed by the same Schmidt who later became board chair.
Schmidt’s report provided the foundation for the centralization of the system. The board transferred its authority to appoint presidents to the chancellor, currently Matthew Goldstein (who was appointed in 1999). The chancellor also appoints a series of vice chancellors. The centralization is evident as well in the actions of the academic affairs vice chancellor, a position taken in 2008 by Alexandra Logue, who manages her near-absolute power by regularly meeting with the campus provosts, the chief academic officers, to “suggest” the policies that will gain approval and funding. Chancellors and vice chancellors have been known to admonish presidents and provosts to “get on the train” if they expect to remain in office as presidents or receive their annual increases.
Why should faculty members care about this micromanagement? Apart from a handful of faculty leaders, few paid attention to the consolidation of administrative power. Faculty members yawned through proposals to centralize the purchase of paper clips and library books only to awaken to discover a new university-wide computer system that will need debugging for years to come. Then they saw their ability to continue their PhD programs in the sciences disappear: essentially, the chancellor moved those programs to two senior colleges.
Right now, the undergraduate faculties are stinging with anger over a centrally generated proposal called “Pathways,” which promises students easier transfer among CUNY colleges. As the details unfolded, faculty members showed up by the hundreds to voice opposition or to propose modifications to the project at public hearings held by the trustees. Faculty leaders, starting with the executive committee of the faculty senate under my leadership, offered suggestions, explained problems, and proposed alternatives—all of which were rejected. Faculty voices were dismissed as being self-serving, coming from entrenched interests unwilling to embrace “reform” and simply defending turf. As implementation of Pathways drew nearer, the trustees remained oblivious to faculty protests—as they had been when the central administration decided to move certain doctoral programs to new campuses.
Trustees believe in their chancellor and his vice chancellor for academic affairs—despite a local petition opposing them that garnered more than six thousand signatures and a national petition with more than five thousand names. They refuse to heed any argument or evidence from the faculty that the vice chancellor’s program is a flagrant violation of both academic standards and academic freedom. They credit her claims that the new academic requirements were shaped entirely by faculty members—true if you believe that having a small group of appointed “pet” faculty members devise the curriculum is the way to go.
With Pathways, we now have a general education core that makes it possible for a student to obtain a four-year liberal arts degree without a course in literature, foreign language, history, political science, economics, or a lab science. Its proponents insist that no extra hour for basic English composition is necessary and that basic science can be taught without a lab.
A previous vice chancellor pushed a US history requirement on the colleges, partly to deal with the enormous number of international students who knew little of the country to which they had moved. This requirement is effectively gone. Letters from the Modern Language Association protesting the reduction of class hours and requirements were brushed aside with the airy remark that students will have the choice to take those classes if they wish. The current Pathways would permit a student to fulfill a “world cultures” requirement by taking one semester of a foreign language. It is an embarrassment, and the faculty, even those professors tasked with implementing it, are reacting with bewilderment and anger.
A Cheapened Education
CUNY is now divided. The vice chancellor for academic affairs and chancellor promise the trustees that “their” resolution is being implemented with faculty support. The faculties in many colleges have refused to vote through curricular changes to fit this diminished educational model; new curricular arrangements are being implemented by college administrations without faculty approval.
Many students arrive at CUNY underprepared; most are from families perilously familiar with poverty; a majority work, often in several jobs; and they are often parents themselves, with family responsibilities. Faculty members quietly live with the fact that few students do the assignments. Cutting back on the general education requirements cheapens education; this cheapened education may not have racist motives, but it has racist and classist outcomes. CUNY students do not come with middle-class trappings—economic security and comfort with cultural institutions. Moreover, careful analysis of CUNY graduation statistics demonstrates that only a small percentage of students graduate with more than the requisite 120 credits—and those extra credits come not because they lose credits during transfer but because the students change majors or enter a senior college missing prerequisites for a major. In other words, even the premise for Pathways—that cutting requirements was necessary to enable students to transfer without losing credits—is baseless.
What CUNY students need is not a cheap trip through four years of watered-down education but better advisement, convenient and clear access to the requirements of the program into which they want to transfer, and a significant dose of college-level cultural experiences. They should not feel intimidated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, serious theater, a classical symphony, or a conversation based on real knowledge of a subject.
What is sad is that in order to make a case for Pathways, the trustees, some of whom are CUNY graduates themselves, cherry pick a handful of students who say that their community college coursework was disrespected on transfer. The trustees disregard the many contrary student experiences as well as faculty demonstrations, petitions, private overtures, letters, and resolutions. But without listening to the faculty—the people who deal with students daily—no positive improvements will happen. Trustees may have the power alone, but they do not have the knowledge—and neither do their appointed central administrators.
Sandi Cooper is professor of history at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She chaired the university’s faculty senate from 1994 to 1998 and from 2010 to 2012