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Home » Clarion » 2011 » September 2011 » Viewpoint: How CUNY Went Corporate

Viewpoint: How CUNY Went Corporate


Writing about British and US universities in The New York Review of Books, the scholar Simon Head traced the assault on scholarship and research to “theories and practices…mostly American in origin, conceived in American business schools and management consulting firms.” Aided by technologies developed by corporations such as IBM, Oracle and SAF that provided enforcement mechanisms, academia has been flooded by terms unheard of a generation ago – “performance indicators,” “units of assessment,” “productivity measures” and “metrics.” From Texas to Manchester, scholars of medieval poetry are found superfluous because the cost of their salaries is not offset by measures of “value added.” A young scholar is urged to write articles, not books, so his count can be increased annually.
The practices of corporate management are aided by a phenomenon of the past generation – so-called advanced degrees in higher education management where people are presumably trained to lead colleges by organizational guidebooks and “best practices” – all defined by other professional administrators. As one who has taught since 1959, I cannot see how these directions bode much good for a future.

Such trends reflect a fundamental departure from the basic principles on which universities have functioned since their creation: scholarship and teaching directed by scholars exercising joint control in an independent institution. In place of an individual savant, artist or philosopher dependent on the largesse and whims of an individual patron, the creation of the university meant the establishment of an independent institution based on shared standards and principles. While not perfect, it is a structure that has combined democratic decision-making with respect for the authority derived from deep knowledge of one’s subject.


Increasing control by a centralized group of administrators has not been good for higher education. CUNY’s version of this hair-raising trend has its own distinctive features. When the City University of New York was established in its modern form in 1963, as an entity including a new graduate school, a variety of senior colleges and several community colleges, the chancellery had a small portfolio and the members of the Board of Higher Education were eminent New Yorkers, selected after a blue ribbon panel recommended them to the mayor. Each was connected to a college in the borough from which he or she came, and was expected to advocate for its interests. Trustees set broad policies, appointed presidents, eventually recognized the union and set up a faculty senate – and went about their business.

They did not try to mind everyone else’s business. The University was a loose federation, with the presidents on the campuses largely left to their own devices to succeed or flop. Was this perfect? No. But by and large, faculty senates were able to develop institutional cultures that sustained educational values and provided continuity.

Periodically the Board of Higher Education imposed a university-wide policy – i.e., open admissions in 1969-1970. The frightening bankruptcy of New York City in 1975-1976 produced semi-hysterical responses from the Board – huge layoffs breaking tenure, merging colleges that had little in common, closing down liberal arts programs until the State took over. The Board of Higher Ed was then replaced by a Board of Trustees, with ten appointed by the governor, five by the mayor, and chairs of the student senate and the University Faculty Senate serving ex officio (the latter without vote).


Until the mid-1990s, the new Board of Trustees made some changes to open admissions, began to move towards creating standard policies for the University (such as central purchasing and sharing library resources). However, with the election of George Pataki as governor and Rudolf Giuliani as mayor, the entire atmosphere changed.

A conservative statewide group, Change New York, and the New York City-based Manhattan Institute launched a barrage against CUNY, the opening salvos of a scorched-earth public relations campaign that largely succeeded. A stream of articles denouncing open admissions were supported by James Traub’s City on a Hill; local TV programs featured right-wing critics and finally, Mayor Giuliani appointed a commission headed by Benno Schmidt that was supposed to “save” CUNY. The commission’s 1999 report laid the foundation for the “CUNIversity” of the present. Eventually Benno Schmidt became chair of the Board – replacing Herman Badillo, who had spent a good deal of time bad-mouthing CUNY and the University Faculty Senate, blaming open enrollment for supposed “social promotion,” and even meddling in syllabi of courses he deemed too left-wing.

With the appointment of Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, the corporatist mode found its CEO. The chancellor could now appoint and remove presidents – previously a Board prerogative. The chancellor could call presidents to order, manage the searches, conduct the evaluations and shape the internal policies of a college if he thought it was needed. One president who rejected a candidate for tenure was overruled – and soon removed. Presidents became managers, not leaders or visionaries. Faculty snickered that they had become glorified deans, and many of these “deans” treated their college staffs with disrespect that bordered on contempt. The central office launched an annual evaluation called the Performance Management Process (PMP), a tool by which central administration could more closely manage the affairs of the colleges. CUNY was to seek private funding and monies for special areas – i.e., the honors college – were raised. A massive PR campaign on buses, billboards, newspaper ads and subway placards announced CUNY’s second coming.

To find out what is valued under this new regime, University-wide and at your own college, all faculty should check the PMP website. The chancellery believes that quantitative metrics are all that count; presidents who earn a good report card, the motivational carrot, get raises and other rewards. Good boys get goodies.

This system has no check-off that celebrates students moved by a beautiful painting or an elegant equation. Faculty who think students need to learn about the evolution of global relationships over five to six centuries won’t be prevented from pursuing that goal – but it won’t do much for their president’s PMP. Nor will an insistence on the importance of foreign languages. Most courses may have to justify themselves by size of enrollment.

People for whom truth mainly emerges from a combination of numbers and motivational psychology see nothing wrong in micromanagement and centralization. About a decade ago, a trustee stated to a meeting of the UFS Executive Committee that he viewed shared governance as faculty and administration carrying out Board policies. And Board policies these days are largely voted after the chancellery provides the language. We are approaching an imperial chancellery.


In 2011, this managerial system jumped into the main remaining area of faculty independence and authority – the curriculum. From controlling campus management, introducing a central computer system (yet to prove the millions invested in it), and centralizing purchases the chancellery has leapt into taking over campus faculty authority on curriculum. The “Pathways” project, defended as in the interests of student transfer, is actually the opposite – unless we agree that a superficial gloss of general education, molded by “outcomes,” is good enough for our undergraduates.

All colleges will now have to subscribe to a set of goals laid out by a committee appointed solely by the vice chancellor for academic affairs. This committee is composed of a selected cohort of faculty selected by the Office of Academic Affairs in consultation with campus administrators. It does not include a single elected faculty representative. The selection, over the summer in a great hurry, studiously ignored the 20-plus members of the General Education committee of the University Faculty Senate.

The process requires that the committee report by November 1; faculty will have until November 15 to respond. Both in its adoption and its implementation, the Pathways project has ignored the bylaw role of the University Faculty Senate (UFS). Contrary to propaganda claims that the UFS has been genuinely consulted, it was not. This system ignores the role of college curricula committees, faculty senates and bylaw requirements that those who teach the courses decide on what they should be.


The system comes very close to undermining academic freedom. A centrally appointed faculty committee will determine whether your course (a) belongs in general education “outcomes” categories and (b) for nine majors, another set of committees will propose three requirements for that major. If your campus, for instance, believes that four semesters of a foreign language are essential for an educated person, you will have to ditch something else. In an era of globalization where knowing multiple languages is more necessary than ever, in an age when scientific literacy is urgently needed yet seems to be in short supply, the University is cutting back on general education requirements to meet a lower common denominator and increase graduation rates. (It is interesting that students at Brooklyn and Baruch opposed this reduction in a resolution and that Lehman students voted in their college council against it, but their voices went unheard.)

Well over 40 faculty groups weighed in against the proposal in the Spring 2011 semester, but their objections were dismissed as trivial or self-serving. CUNIversity’s leadership, in its usual style, went cherry-picking to find people to serve on its committees. Their role will be cited as “faculty participation” and consent. They will restructure academic outcomes and shovel these into a 30-credit common core that allows a senior college to add 12 more credits to its requirements. You will lose control of your graduation requirements and essentially your admission requirements as well.

This is the most violent assault on shared governance that I have seen in four-plus decades of teaching at CUNY. It is a radical rejection of university traditions that arose in Salerno, Bologna and Paris over nine centuries ago. Despite state or church oversight, faculty generally elected their deans for limited terms, gave the lectures and voted on the degrees. We are left with a shadow of that millennium of practice, and an impoverished education is the result.


CUNY Board Approves Gen Ed Overhaul: Transfer Policy Also Changed
Gen Ed Debate Sharpens, UFS Says Its Views Dismissed

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