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Tempest in a Task Force

Tempest in a Task Force

While mayor lauds critical report on the City University of New York, many politicians and academics call it blatantly political

By Jamilah Evelyn

NEW YORK — The City University of New York system is poised to serve as a national model for urban institutions. That’s the good news. The bad news requires a considerably longer sentence; make that, paragraph; make that, report.
The university has ” loose and confused” academic standards, an administration that spends resources with “virtually no strategy or planning,” and is, in short, “adrift.” That, according to a scathing new report released last month.
The report, which has been met here by some equally cutting ripostes from the political and academic communities, comes more than a year after New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani convened a special task force to study the CUNY system. Yale University’s former president, Dr. Benno C. Schmidt Jr., headed the task force. Giuliani applauded the task force’s 109-page report, but several city council members decried The City University of New York: An Institution Adrift as a thinly disguised attempt be the mayor to wrest control of the 200,000 student system.
“This is a blatant political statement made in the guise of educational reform,” says council member Bill Perkins. The mayor, he says, “simply wants to undermine the system and not provide sufficient resources” to improve it.
Even those who agree with some of the task force’s findings say that the panel’s recommendations will mean nothing if the mayor and New York Gov. George E. Pataki — who also has been highly critical of the CUNY system — don’t put their money where their mouths are.
“It’s critical that they put some dollars where they have been talking and give the institution some time,” says Dr. Joshua Smith, director of the Center for Urban Community College Leadership at New York University. “These kind of changes won’t happen overnight.”
Smith, also a former community college president and chancellor, adds that the analysis failed to take into account the short shrift CUNY’s budget has received over the last several years, which many see as key to the system’s numerous problems.

The report has drawn such strong reaction because many here believe the system’s board of trustees will likely use the document, commonly referred to around New York as “The Schmidt Report,” as a blueprint for major reforms. Giuliani and Pataki have spent the past few years stacking the CUNY board with trustees willing to follow their political lead. While some question the mayor and the governor’s intentions, others hope that a politically connected board will be able to get CUNY much needed funding increases.
Shortly after the report’s release, Pataki announced he would nominate Schmidt, who currently heads the Edison Project, a company that develops and operates for-profit schools, as vice chairman of CUNY’s board. He had been rumored as the top contender for the currently vacant chancellor position, but recently he turned down job offers from Giuliani and Pataki.
Another task force member, Herman Badillo, recently was named chairman of the board (see Black Issues, June 24, 1999). Previously, he was the mayor’s top advisor on higher education issues. Badillo also has announced his intention to run for governor on the Republican Party ticket.
For his part, Giuliani — who has suggested in the past that the entire system should be “blown up” — hailed the report by his seven-member task force as ” detailed and objective.”
“The report is a telling and comprehensive analysis of CUNY,” Giuliani says. “I established the task force to address the continuing and long-standing decline in the educational standards at CUNY. Their [sic] findings move us a step closer to ensuring that our students receive the best opportunity to be successful.”
CUNY, the largest urban college and university system in the country, consists of 17 institutions, six community colleges, and 11 senior institutions. Most of its students are working class and many are immigrants and minorities, factors that the report’s critics say should be taken into account before blasting the system’s low graduation and high remediation rates.
Fifty years ago, they system’s flagship institution, City College, was known as “the proletarian’s Harvard” and boasted graduates like Dr. Jonas Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine. But recently, the entire system has fallen on hard times, which most say are due to budget cutbacks and ill-prepared students from the city’s public schools. But Giuliani and Pataki also have blamed what they say are CUNY’s lax standards, including its longstanding open admission policy.
The report — and its 10 volumes of supplemental material — attack nearly every aspect of the system: admission standards, curriculum, graduation rates, faculty, and administration.
“Accountability is largely ignored in its governance processes and there is virtually no strategy or planning in the way it allocates its resources,” the report says. “Academic standards are loose and confused, and CUNY officials lack the basic information necessary to make sound judgments about the quality and effectiveness of their programs.”
The report, also commended by the governor’s office, goes on to say that the system relies too heavily on part-time faculty and that its full-time faculty is “shrinking, aging, and losing ground.” It adds: “CUNY is inundated by public school graduates who lack basic academic skills, but it has not made sound judgments about the quality and effectiveness of its programs.”
But others retort that the mayor has hypocritically tried to cut back several of the system’s programs aimed at improving many of the same areas that  his task force judged harshly.
Additionally, nearly two-thirds of the city’s voters say the university is a “very good” or “fairly good” educational institution, despite Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s unrelenting criticism of the system, according to a poll released last month.
“Most New Yorkers think the biggest problem is not with CUNY, but with the public schools,” says Maurice Carroll, director of the College Polling Institute, which conducted the poll. “New Yorkers want CUNY to do a better job. But most of them still would recommend CUNY, and think it should get more government money.”
According to the survey, 18 percent of voters said CUNY is “very good,” while 47 percent rated it “fairly good.” And, 59 percent said they would recommend CUNY to a friend or relative, while 30 percent said they would not.

The task force was particularly critical of the system’s remediation education programs, stopping just short of recommending that they be privatized as many expected the commission to do. The system’s remediation efforts, the analysis says, “proceed haphazardly” and have “no objective measures of which remediation efforts are, or are not, succeeding.”
The report’s authors did, however, recommend developing a voucher system whereby students in need of remediation could take courses at the other public or private institutions, part of an effort to create a financial-aid system for remedial students apart from the one currently in place.
In a highly controversial move last year, CUNY trustees voted to end remedial classes at the system’s senior colleges but continue at the six community colleges. Trustees were forced to vote on the measure again after a judge ruled that the first vote was illegal (see Black Issues, March 5, 1998, Dec. 24, 1998, and Feb. 2, 1999).
The report also recommends that CUNY’s senior colleges be divided into three groups with progressively tougher admission requirements and that it reshape its open admissions policy in favor of requiring tests like the SAT.
Though not everyone here was pleased with the report’s findings, some were optimistic that it would bring about long-overdue reforms.
Many here were dismayed that the report lamented everything negative while failing to point out positives of a massive system with a massive task of successfully educating underprepared students.
“With such a vast institution, when you start making generalizations, it’s really hard to make them stick to everyone,” says Smith, adding that he can point to numerous bright spots within the system.
One group here, the Bar Association of the City of New York, has already announced plans to set up its own committee on the future of CUNY. Officials there say they are concerned about the civil rights of the system’s minority students who would be largely impacted by rollbacks in remediation, the proposed tier system, and SAT requirements for admission.
Still others worry the report is merely a sign that Republican politicians are continuing what they contend had been a campaign to alienate the city’s most needy residents. Council member Guillermo Linares says that if the report’s recommendations are implemented, it “will guarantee a permanent underclass in the city.”
According to Carroll’s poll — which surveyed 1,014 registered voters and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points — the public feels the same way. The survey found that just 18 percent approved of Gov. George Pataki’s CUNY policies, while only 20 percent supported Giuliani’s handling of CUNY.
And despite Giuliani repeatedly calling for an end to open enrollment and cutting back remediation at CUNY, 60 percent of New Yorkers support the admissions policy and 71 percent back the continuation of remedial classes.
But Dr. Edison Jackson, president of Medgar Evers College, adds that there’s nothing wrong with raising the bar at some of the system’s institutions, as long as university officials don’t forget those at the bottom of the barrel.
“CUNY has a responsibility to lift up the entire educational enterprise,” he says. “We have to be able to respect the diversity within the city. We just need to make sure that within the system, there is always opportunity.
“This community deserves the best,” he continues. “It’s time for a reassessment of where we need to go. This report can help us do that.” 

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