When CUNY trustees voted to block an honorary degree for playwright Tony Kushner, their action was widely condemned. As protests grew, the decision was reversed– but many people asked how it could have happened in the first place.
Now a growing number of voices are urging a re-examination of how CUNY trustees are chosen. “It calls the whole process into question,” art historian Diane Kelder told New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman. “Who are these people on the board? How do they make judgments?”
Kelder, professor emerita at the CUNY Graduate Center and College of Staten Island, received her own honorary degree this year from CSI. She told Haberman the “whole shabby procedure” around the Kushner degree might be of some use if it sparked reform in the trustee selection process.
Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology at Columbia, voiced the same concerns on his blog at Chronicle of Higher Education. This fall the John Jay Faculty Senate is planning to explore how trustees are chosen for the boards of other public university systems across the country.
Critics have noted that CUNY’s Board of Trustees is made up largely of political appointees, many of whom were appointed with little background in higher education. A board with deeper knowledge of academia would be less likely to countenance attacks on academic freedom and academic judgment, they suggest. But experience in or knowledge of public higher education is not a requirement for CUNY trustees under current law.
“Too often governors and mayors have appointed their senior staff to the boards of SUNY and CUNY as a means of controlling a block 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. Ten CUNY trustees are appointed by the governor and five by the mayor, subject to State Senate confirmation, with heads of CUNY’s student and faculty senates serving ex officio.
Last year Lancman was a sponsor of a a bill requiring that CUNY and SUNY trustees not be direct employees of either the governor or mayor. It passed the State Senate and Assembly, only to be vetoed in September by then-Governor David Paterson. The legislation was backed by the PSC and its state affiliate, NY State United Teachers, as a first step toward deeper reform.
The PSC has supported legislation to establish baseline qualifications for prospective CUNY and SUNY trustees and create independent commissions to recruit, screen, and recommend candidates according to those criteria. This year a measure with those goals (A159/S5321) was introduced by Assemblymember Kevin Cahill and State Sen. Joseph Robach. “Over the years, many trustee appointments have been made based on political alliances rather than the [nominees’] qualifications and real connections to public higher education,” the bill’s authors explained.
The Cahill/Robach bill would create separate blue-ribbon commissions for CUNY and for SUNY, each with eleven members. The CUNY commission’s members would be named by the governor, the mayor of NYC, the Assembly’s speaker, the State Senate’s president pro tem, and the heads of CUNY’s faculty and student senates.
Commission members could not all belong to the same political party, and a certain number would have to be CUNY graduates.
“Imagine what CUNY policy decisions might look like if trustees were selected mainly for their knowledge of higher education and their intellectual independence,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “The legislature should repair this fundamental flaw in CUNY’s governance.”