On April 13, in an article titled “Longtime CUNY Chancellor to Step Down After Pushing Higher Standards,” The New York Times reported on Matthew Goldstein’s decision to step down as chancellor of the City University of New York (tinyurl.com/NYT-MG-resign). In what follows, I do not aim to present a comprehensive assessment of Goldstein’s term as chancellor, the longest in CUNY’s history. But the question of standards – what they are, and what they are not – is a matter of current controversy, and deserves a closer look.
As the title of The Times article suggests, the paper has bought into Goldstein’s and CUNY administration’s claim to have raised standards. In backing up this claim, the article quotes the statistics provided by CUNY about the SAT scores of students entering “CUNY’s top five four-year colleges – Baruch, Brooklyn, City, Hunter and Queens.”
While this line of argument is reflective of CUNY’s obsession with SAT scores, the reporter accepts it at face value without mentioning that SAT scores have been shown to be less reflective of a student’s potential for college success than her socioeconomic background. It is for this reason that the trend among the most prestigious universities in this country is to place less, rather than more, emphasis on SAT scores. So as the prestigious universities that have long focused on educating the children of the economic elite are trying to increase diversity by moving away from biased indicators, CUNY, whose mission has historically been to provide educational opportunity to New York City’s underprivileged groups, has increased its reliance on such biased indicators. It is not surprising, then, that Goldstein’s policies have led to a reduced representation of black and Latino students in CUNY’s most competitive colleges (see “At CUNY, Stricter Admissions Bring Ethnic Shift,” The New York Times, May 22, 2012, at tinyurl.com/CUNY-CSS-NYT).
In fact, things have gotten so bad that, as an October 21 letter to the Times’s editors pointed wrote: “In 2011, the percentage of black freshmen at Baruch College (6%) was lower than that of Harvard University (7%), despite the fact that an overwhelming share of CUNY students come from predominantly black and Latino public high schools.” [See tinyurl.com/CUNY-CSS-NYT-letter.]
Out of Step
Given its focus on “higher standards,” it is also curious to read what the Times article on the chancellor’s resignation has to say about the raging controversy over Pathways, the new CUNY-wide general education requirements that Goldstein and his Board of Trustees are trying to impose against the objections of the most appropriate people to make decisions on curriculum, namely faculty and their elected governance bodies. The Times article uncritically accepts CUNY’s stated rationale for Pathways, which is to “make it easier to transfer credits from one CUNY college to another.”
This rationale has by now been thoroughly debunked by the research of a number of CUNY faculty, who have demonstrated that CUNY’s claims regarding Pathways were based on faulty research that overstated and oversimplified transfer problems within the CUNY system. Its rationale debunked, CUNY pivoted to a claim that Pathways was less about transfer and more about student choice. Such a claim seems even more absurd, given the fact that, before Pathways, students interested in CUNY could choose between the different CUNY colleges’ general education programs. If and when Pathways is implemented, students interested in CUNY will have to take a Pathways-based general education, no matter what college they end up attending.
The main problem with Pathways, however, is the fact that it reduces academic standards, rather than raising them. At a time when, even before they enter college, American students’ performance in math and science lags behind that of their peers in other advanced countries (see “US Students Still Lag Globally in Math and Science, Tests Show,” The New York Times, Dec. 11, 2012, tinyurl.com/US-lags-math-science), Pathways will reduce the exposure to math, science and labs of students who pursue non-technical degrees. At a time when the world is going through its deepest socioeconomic crisis since the Great Depression, Pathways will make it possible for many students to graduate from college without any exposure to social science. At a time when cultural contact is at an all-time high and bound to continue increasing, Pathways will reduce the exposure that students in many of CUNY’s colleges will have to foreign languages.
This is why most CUNY faculty (as well as thousands of faculty from across the country who have signed a national petition against Pathways) are opposed to Pathways. Faced with faculty opposition, CUNY has relied on intimidation to push the new curriculum toward implementation. As the Times has reported in the past, in the most egregious case the administration at Queensborough Community College threatened faculty members’ jobs when they voted against the Pathways-prescribed three-hour composition courses that reduced the time students had to spend in class with their composition professors (see “College English Dept. Fights Class-Time Cuts,” The New York Times, Sept. 18, 2012, tinyurl.com/QCC-NYT). Anyone who has taught at CUNY knows that many of our students, including – but not only – the ones who are non-native speakers of English, need all the help they can get with their writing. So pushing for these three-unit courses is antithetical to truly raising the quality of CUNY students’ education, as are all the other changes mentioned above.
Apart from Pathways’ assault on the quality of a CUNY education, the administration’s reliance on intimidation has understandably poisoned the climate – leading, as a CUNY faculty member quoted in the article correctly points out, to “the worst morale since the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.” Since, apart from the students themselves, the most valuable resource of any university are the faculty, there is no greater indictment of the Chancellor’s leadership than the effect of the Pathways initiative on faculty morale.
Ask the Faculty
Yet this effect should not be mistaken for fatalism. Although the Chancellor has long sought to cultivate a sense of inevitability about Pathways, faculty throughout the CUNY system continue to speak up and organize against it. Faculty know that the Pathways project is rife with problems, and they are not about to be silent. At CUNY today, it is the faculty who are determined to defend CUNY’s academic standards against the Chancellor’s determination to water them down.
Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology and the author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy (Pluto Press). Another version of this article was originally published at the NYTimes eXaminer (tinyurl.com/CUNYstandards).