One of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s nominees to the CUNY Board of Trustees was confirmed by the State Senate at the beginning of May. And a number of mayoral appointees to the board will soon see their terms expire, opening seats for Mayor Bill de Blasio to fill.
This turnover on the board has again put a spotlight on the process by which CUNY trustees are chosen – and the PSC is renewing its calls for reform.
Experience Not Required
“CUNY needs trustees who have deep experience with the issues of public higher education,” PSC President Barbara Bowen told Clarion.
“CUNY trustees should be known as intellectual leaders and independent thinkers on university policy questions.”
That is not the case today.
Current law provides that ten CUNY trustees shall be appointed by the governor and five by the mayor, subject to State Senate confirmation. (Two others serve ex officio.) A certain number of trustees must be CUNY alumni, and there must be representatives from each borough. Yet, nowhere in the law is higher education experience required.
“Too often governors and mayors have appointed their senior staff to the boards of SUNY and CUNY as a means of controlling a bloc of votes on those boards, preferring toadies to trustees of higher education in the truest sense of the word,” Assemblymember Rory Lancman told the Queens Courier in 2010.
“The current board of trustees is almost completely devoid of educators,” the PSC’s Brooklyn College chapter noted this April. “It is comprised of political appointees, whose main qualification was political support for current and former mayors and governors, rather than expertise in educational policy.”
The PSC supports legislation that would change that. A current bill in the Assembly (A1669) and a companion bill in the State Senate (S4466) would create a blue-ribbon review panel to “recruit and screen trustee appointments” to recommend to the governor and the mayor, similar to the screening panels that currently exist for judicial nominations. Under this bill, potential nominees to the CUNY Board of Trustees would be recommended based on their professional expertise, demonstrated commitment to public higher education, and “actual and perceived” independence from political interference.
“Over the years, many trustee appointments have been made based on political alliances rather than qualifications and real connections to public higher education,” the bill stated in its justification. “This has created at times real and potential conflicts of interest and political influence that have interfered with the ability of trustees to responsibly carry out their duties.”
A more modest proposal, sponsored by Lancman and supported by the PSC, was passed by both the Assembly and State Senate in 2010: it required that CUNY or SUNY trustees not be direct employees of either the governor or mayor. That bill was vetoed by then-Governor David Paterson.
The lack of expertise has led to a decline in CUNY trustees’ independence, with the board increasingly acting as a rubber stamp. In past decades, critical issues like open admissions or the fate of remedial instruction would find trustees with strongly held positions on either side, and several who argued for views different from CUNY’s central administration. Today the board’s decisions are typically unanimous – even on a contentious issue like Pathways, where faculty opinion has been overwhelmingly on the opposite side.
The need to reform the trustee selection process was highlighted in a report from the New York City Bar Association more than decade ago: CUNY trustees should not “serve as a rubber stamp for the chancellor or any elected official,” the report said. “We recommend in the strongest terms the adoption of legislation eliminating conflicts of interests and establishing a nominating/screening panel.”
Fourteen years later, with a new wave of trustee appointments about to happen, the PSC says this is an idea whose time has come.
RELATED COVERAGE: A CUNY Trustees’ Index