Righting The CUNY Ship

Righting The CUNY Ship

Associate Editor

If the sites of New Yorkís harbor symbolized the end of a passage and the beginning of a promise for generations of Jewish immigrants, then the portals of City College epitomized Americaís promise to the immigrantsí children.City College ó and later the entire City University of New York ó became so entwined with Jewish academic glory that it may come as a surprise that CUNYís first-year chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, is the first Jew, let alone the first CUNY graduate, to rise to its highest office.Goldstein, 58, came through CUNY ó City College class of í63 ó toward the end of what is now seen as CUNYís golden era. That era ended when top-flight colleges began dropping admissions quotas and Jews were able to afford private colleges and dorming, while at the same time urban politics and open admissions confused CUNYís reputation, particularly among New Yorkís Jews, who were made to feel unwanted in a world that was empowering every minority but theirs.Yet for Goldstein, poverty was a shackle and City College was the horizonís end. He grew up in an Orthodox home in a most modest apartment on Manhattanís East 7th Street between Avenues C and D. The Goldsteins were poor, but the public schools were free, curiosity was free, and a nickel could buy him a subway ride from the tenements up to the Museum of Natural History and other city treasures.He was accepted to Columbia University, couldnít afford it, and went to tuition-free City College instead.It was ìa great transformative experience,î says Goldstein, ìopening worlds I never experienced before. I always had interests, and City College drew out those interests, introducing me to music, art and literature, even though I studied mathematics.îHis home is now on Sutton Place, from where he can walk to his office at CUNY headquarters on 80th Street and East End. In that office, a large triptych depicts a game of billiards in a gentlemanís club. Near his desk is a freestanding art piece that he describes as ìwhimsical,î about the size of a scarecrow, by the artist known as Bama. Tall and elegant, Goldsteinís eclectic embrace of art runs from African masks and tribal shields to a tabletop model of Mozartís opera house in Prague, ìwhere he first performed Don Giovanni. Iím a big Mozartean.î Inlaid lapis stones shine from an office globe.He sees his mission as the restoration of CUNYís ìacademic luster.î He knows as well as any that CUNYís open admissions policy dulled that luster, with the school becoming more known for its incoming freshmen who couldnít read.ìYes,î Goldstein acknowledges, ìthat became the impression. When I went to City College, incoming freshmen were very well prepared. Many of us were able to get into very select institutions, we just didnít have the money to do it.ìWhat we are doing now, and I started doing this when I was president of Baruch College [from 1991 to í98], is to bring standards to a much higher level. The problem was, we didnít even know what our admissions standards even meantî because the New York City public high schools ìthat were supplying these students with 80-85 averages were not really teaching the students at levels that made them prepared for collegiate-level work.îThere was also the matter of alumni, a large number of whom are ìvery wealthy people, who care deeply about the institution, whose lives were transformed by CUNY, but who now wanted nothing to do with it. They thought the school had gone astray,î Goldstein says.ìI wanted to bring these people back. I knew, when I was at Baruch, that if I was going to take Baruch up to the next level, Iíd have to raise a lot of money. I had to get these influential and powerful people back in the fold.îStep one, he says, was ratcheting up admissions standards to make them ìquite competitive.î CUNY colleges such as Baruch, Queens, Hunter and Brooklyn look very much like many of the state universities, Goldstein says. ìOur SAT scores at these campuses are in many cases above the national averages, hovering a little under 1100.îHe also intends to restore a faculty that since 1980 has lost 20 percent of its full-timers and create an honors college.Edith Everett, who recently ended 23 years as a CUNY trustee, says of the quest for higher standards: ìIf students donít come in perfect, I donít think we should ignore them and say theyíre not for us. People in New York have often had such bad experiences in the public school system. Some students are so poor and trying so hard. To ignore all of that and not try to give them a leg up is simply mean.îAlthough Goldstein wants to phase out remedial classes at the four-year colleges, Everett recognizes that ìheís trying to make things better while maintaining opportunity for people in the city.îìThe chancellor has been trying to beef up what happens in the city high schools, so when they do come to college they are better prepared,î she aid. ìI would think heís doing a good job.îDoes CUNY recruit at Jewish day schools?ìNot as much as we should,î says Goldstein, who briefly assumed the presidency of Adelphi University in 1998 after leaving Baruch, where he was hired as a statistics professor in 1978. ìWeíd like to hire a vice chancellor for enrollment management, to take a more active position in reaching out to Jewish day schools, and other private institutions and parochial schools, where we have not really had that much success recruiting students.Goldstein notes that he reactivated the Hillel during his tenure at Baruch.ìWhen I went to school, Hillel was a very prominent club,î he says, adding that it now thrives at CUNY colleges such as Baruch, Brooklyn and Queens. ìItís important that students have a place where they feel comfortable.îCUNY, to be sure, is a very large ship ó actually, a fleet ó that changes direction slowly. The system is comprised of 11 senior colleges, six community colleges and graduate schools. With nearly 200,000 full-time students (roughly 10 percent are Jewish), 155,000 non-degree students and a budget that Goldstein estimates at ìabout $1.5 billion,î it is the third largest public university in the country, after SUNY and the University of California. Nearly 30,000 diplomas are handed out every year.The trustees have suggested that for these diplomas to mean anything, every graduate have ìa set of competencies appropriate to a quality institution.îSounds reasonable, but one professor, Joanne Reitano, chair of the Community College Caucus, was quoted in newspapers as questioning whether even American history should be included in that core curriculum. The idea of including American history, she says, ìhallows ethnocentrism just as everyone else is embracing internationalism and preparing students to become citizens of the world.îAnd there have been reports, too, of heavy-handed anti-Zionist professors, including Leonard Jeffries, former chairman of the black studies department.However, a recent editorial in The New York Post said: ìNotwithstanding the storm clouds building on the academic left, the future for CUNY looks brighter than it has in some time. … We have every confidence that the folks running CUNY today ó board chairman Herman Badillo and Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, among others ó will give the naysayers what they deserve: The bumís rush. Politely, though.îìWeíre trying to change the conversation about City University,î says Goldstein, politely. ìMany students felt this was not the environment in which they could reach their potential, perhaps for legitimate reasons, and weíre trying to change that.îAs to the honors college, he says it will ìbring together the best of what we have on all of our campuses.îìIt wonít be situated on one particular campus but it will be anchored on two or three campuses. It will have high admissions standards,î Goldstein says.The conversation is changing.

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