The Decline and Tottering of CUNY

On Saturday, The New York Times ran a story about the how the City University of New York system is crumbling, morale in many departments has plummeted, classes have been canceled or over-crowded, which has resulted either in hard-working students being unable to achieve their goals, or else instructors forced, due to high student numbers, to ditch better teaching techniques for worse ones. Things are apparently so bad, what with fighting between Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, rising costs, steep cuts to many programs, and President Coico reportedly dipping into the Research Foundation for personal expenses, that faculty and employees are strongly contemplating a strike in the fall.

So, I spent just a bit of time perusing CUNY budget documents. The CUNY Master Plan for 2012-2016 asks all the right questions and preaches all the right things–student success, full-time faculty, investment in infrastructure (the 2016 budget request is here). The 2017 Budget Request makes for interesting reading: $36 million and change for “performance improvement plan funding” (page 5) which seems to tick a lot of boxes that the NYT article highlighted as problem areas (and is competitive among CUNY schools).

Other items of note on the 2017 funding request: Experiential Learning (TBD), page 6; Data Analytics, $3 million, page 10; Math Remediation, $2.5 million, page 10; and Online Education, $4 million, page 11. The full breakdown of institution and program costs is on pages 16 and 17. The Graduate Center is slated to receive nearly $118 million over five years.

The key discussion of infrastructure maintenance is on page 13 and the chart on page 19. This coming year, the plan calls for circa $469 million in infrastructure investment. Would this be enough to fix that leak in the library roof?

Anyway, what a mess. I have friends who have gone through the CUNY Graduate Center, and have known people who are, or who have been, involved in the much-touted Futures Initiative, which, when began, was touted as The Next Big Thing in higher ed. It still is, if you look at the detailed explanation of what it is and where it operates–while housed in the Graduate Center and heavily dependent on graduate students, its operations are spread all over the CUNY system.

Mapping the Futures of Higher Education

What I’m curious about, as someone looking on from the outside at a distance, is this: what is the actual impact of the Futures Initiative when balanced against the apparent general degradation of the CUNY system? How much of an impact is the Futures Initiative having (its own annual report seems to measure impact in social media presence), or how much time will it take to determine if the initiative DOES have an impact? Are these reports of CUNY’s financial difficulties overstated? Are we really just talking about two different pots of money? Is CUNY administration really that bloated (a rhetorical question, mostly…)?

Perhaps it’s that I just find the juxtaposition of these two different narratives so odd–on the one hand, administrative bloat and mismanagement, coupled with decaying infrastructure and your typical political agendas, and on the other hand the story of this ongoing glorious enterprise, with a lot of people trying to do good work, but with little indication, at least to my mind, that there’s much of an impact–indeed, how can there be, when, from the sounds of the NYT article, all those good ideas contained in the Initiative’s teaching handbook Structuring Equality can’t even be put into practice by CUNY’s own teachers? Or is the Futures Initiative promoting a different type of inequality, one in which instructors not lucky enough to be part of the initiative are left to make do? (which doesn’t make sense if you look at the CUNY budget request below) If so, it reminds me of that other perennial New York education firestorm, charter schools.

Meanwhile, it sounds like, despite the glossy proclamations of how research shows that full-time faculty are a good investment, and how the infrastructure of the library and the learning centers is important, the system is crumbling. Granted, it’s not anywhere near as bad as Illinois’ performance-based public university systems, but for a system that was supposed to be the Next Great Thing in higher education, CUNY’s woes make for depressing reading.

One Reply to “The Decline and Tottering of CUNY”

  1. It is truly a shame that CUNY has had to put up with periodic budgeting shortfalls since the 1970’s. Things were bad during the Giuliani years as well.
    The issues surrounding CUNY not only have implications for higher education or social mobility in New York, but actually social mobility in the entire country. CCNY was the first urban college. Founded in 1847 it charged no tuition until 1970 but did have high admissions standards. The result was that generations of immigrants and working class youth could attend college for free if they did well in high school. Kenneth Arrow, Nathan Glaser, Andy Grove, Jonas Salk,and a variety of other notables went from City to impressive careers and several Nobel prizes. In the 60’s and 70’s CCNY and Brooklyn College led the nation in graduates who went on to earn Ph.Ds.
    When City, Brooklyn, Hunter and Queens finally merged into a university in 1964 it permitted the establishment of the CUNY Graduate Center. CUNY in those days drew many of the best faculty members in the county since it paid professors nearly as well as Harvard and was located in New York City. My first undergrad IR professor was Hans Morgenthau who virtually founded modern realism. Arthur Schlesinger was on the history faculty. It was an exciting place for those often new to the life of the mind. Even today it’s been rated as one of the best values in higher education and students graduate with less debt as a result.
    CUNY was and can again be a national treasure. it started the trend towards urban public universities like Wayne State, Rutgers Newark, and LSU in New Orleans. Urban universities permit students with limited incomes to live at home rather than pay for dormitories and meal plans. It should return to its roots and try to fund free or low cost tuition as proposed recently by Bernie Sanders who attended Brooklyn College before transferring to Chicago.
    Unless we reform universities to be affordable and of high quality across the socio-economic spectrum we stand a good chance of losing talented Americans whose families can’t afford high tuition costs. I’m frankly surprised that neither Mayor Di Blasio and Governor Cuomo have not produced a plan to relieve CUNY’s problems. It seems particularly odd for Di Blasio since his campaign goals were all about addressing income inequality.

Leave a Reply