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Home » Clarion » 2013 » June 2013 » CUNY's Interim Chancellor: Bill Kelly Takes Over on July 1

CUNY's Interim Chancellor: Bill Kelly Takes Over on July 1

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Bill Kelly will take over as CUNY’s interim chancellor on July 1, 2013, following an eight-year stint as president of the Graduate Center.
Bill Kelly.jpg

As Graduate Center President William Kelly prepares to become CUNY’s Interim Chancellor on July 1, his departure from the GC has spurred a mix of responses from faculty and students there.

Kelly is widely praised as an effective institutional leader who has brought new resources to the GC and boosted its visibility, and as a likable administrator who is conversant with faculty members’ published work. But others are more critical of the GC’s direction, and many caution that in his new job, Kelly is unlikely to chart a different course from his predecessor’s.

A specialist in American literature who has written a book on the work of Fenimore Cooper, Kelly served on the Queens College faculty from 1976 to 1998, and was appointed to the faculty of the Graduate Center’s doctoral program in English in 1986. He became provost of the GC in 1998 and president in 2005.

“He’s gotten great people here,” said David Nasaw, a distinguished professor of history who characterized the new GC hires as “strikingly diverse.” Under Kelly, he said, the Graduate Center has become “far more vibrant than it’s ever been.” Job applicants, he said, “are blown away to have met an administrator who has read their work and can talk with them about it.”

Zoltán Glück, co-coordinator for The Adjunct Project of the Students’ Doctoral Council, criticized Kelly’s support for CUNY’s Pathways curriculum. “He and Matthew Goldstein have different styles of operating, but the ideology is fundamentally the same,” said Glück, arguing that the two share a neoliberal view of higher education.

Pathways

Kelly is chair of the CUNY Pathways Transfer Majors Committees, and wrote an op-ed for The New York Post last March that strongly defended the Pathways project. “I have been in favor of Pathways long before there was a Pathways,” Kelly said at a May 7 town hall meeting at the GC, two weeks after he was tapped to replace Chancellor Goldstein. He insisted that Pathways would provide a solution to the problems of credit transfer between community and senior colleges, a claim that has been disputed by faculty (see “UFS-PSC Working Group Examines Data on Transfer Problems,” December 2012 Clarion). Pathways “can be improved and tweaked,” Kelly said at the May 7 meeting – but since review of the program is provided for in the Board of Trustees Pathways resolution, he said, there is no reason for CUNY to slow down its implementation.

“He’s far more articulate than Goldstein or any of the others [at the CUNY Central Office],” said Sultan Catto, a professor of physics and a former executive officer of the GC’s physics program. “He will be forced to look at Pathways, but I’m not hopeful about what will happen.”

Many interviewed at the GC noted Kelly’s political skills, with one faculty member comparing him to Bill Clinton: smart, charming and able to make people feel he sympathizes with their concerns – even if he rejects their policy views. Those skills will be put to the test on Pathways, which is deeply unpopular at CUNY.

Kelly leaves the Graduate Center with a reservoir of goodwill among its faculty for changes he has overseen in the past decade and a half – some of which were the focus of union organizing campaigns. Most often mentioned is greater support for doctoral students in the form of tuition remission, increased stipends and the provision of health insurance. Overall, Distinguished Professor of Psychology Michelle Fine calls the increase in support “nothing short of miraculous.”

“Now, [doctoral students] have more time to devote to their studies and their dissertation writing,” says Distinguished Professor of Sociology Frances Fox Piven. “This is absolutely essential for their academic training.”

Cooperation and Conflict

The PSC has seen both cooperation and conflict with Kelly during his years as GC president. On tuition remission, they worked toward the same goal: the PSC had made the issue a priority in contract negotiations, and negotiated the initial seed money as part of the union’s 2002 contract settlement. The PSC also organized lobbying days in Albany, in which doctoral students and faculty pressed the Legislature to give CUNY graduate students the same support as their SUNY counterparts.

The PSC “was enormously important in changing the conversation on tuition remission,” Kelly told Clarion in 2003.

When the union and the Doctoral Student Council (DSC) demanded that New York State provide CUNY grad students with the same health insurance coverage as those at SUNY, however, Kelly was slower to offer public support. A PSC-DSC protest scheduled outside the GC in March 2008 finally prompted Kelly and Chancellor Goldstein to write to legislators in Albany to request funding for the change.

In the past year, Kelly has announced a plan to significantly restructure the Graduate Center, with what he has called a “carrot-and-stick” approach to speeding up the graduation of doctoral students.

Inside Higher Ed reported that Kelly wanted “to rethink the ‘roach motel’ concept of graduate school, where ‘you check in and don’t check out.’” When the comment sparked controversy at the GC, Kelly wrote, “I regret the use of a decades-old cliché, but I reaffirm my rejection of that paradigm. Doctoral institutions have a moral obligation to attend to the progress of their students.”

Under the plan, the GC will scale back admissions over the next few years, aiming for a 25% cut by 2015, but will boost stipends for most incoming doctoral students to $25,000 per year for five years, starting this Fall. Their teaching load will also be reduced from two classes to one per semester. (Current graduate students are not included in the new program.)

“The important issue is making students aware from the start that, although they may not finish the degree in five years, if they [don’t], that will be principally a function of life decisions and life choices,” said GC Provost Chase Robinson, who will become the GC’s interim president when Kelly departs.

Less Hospitable?

The additional resources have been welcomed, particularly given New York City’s cost of living. But concern has also been expressed about whether these changes will make the Graduate Center less hospitable to working-class graduate students whose life situations may not allow them to finish their studies as rapidly as envisioned in Kelly’s plan.

“We’re concerned that a culture of elitism will be fostered that goes against the mission of CUNY to serve the working people of the five boroughs of New York City,” said Alyson Spurgas, a co-coordinator with The Adjunct Project. Kelly argues that the increased fellowships will help diversity in admissions.

“He’s a complicated figure,” said Stanley Aronowitz, a distinguished professor of sociology who thinks that the GC’s increased prominence has come at a cost. While there are fewer “mediocrities” at the GC today, Aronowitz says, scholars with unconventional interests have also been increasingly marginalized. He contends that the GC has become “mainstreamed” as it has sought to improve its US News & World Report rankings.

“Bill Kelly’s definition of excellence is whether you are recognized as important in your profession,” Aronowitz said. “In terms of finances and services, he has done a very good job, but perhaps the price is too high.”

The Search

But that is a minority view. Kelly “has designed and supported a Graduate Center where a whole range of provocative ideas and issues are being discussed, and nothing is beyond the limits,” Michelle Fine told Clarion. David Nasaw also rejects the idea that the GC has become more homogenous. In his own department, he said, “It’s a whole new world around here. The place was once filled [just] with historians who either did the US or Europe.” When most faculty discuss intellectual life at the GC during Kelly’s tenure, they tend to use words like “dynamic.”

Perhaps, inevitably, there are rumors about whether Kelly will be considered by the Board of Trustees as it conducts its search for CUNY’s new permanent chancellor. Asked about this at the May 7 town hall meeting, Kelly said flatly that this is not allowed by CUNY’s rules.

According to the University’s Manual of General Policy, “An interim chancellor shall not be a candidate for chancellor.” However, CUNY’s Board of Trustees is unusual in that it can suspend or change a policy provision, or even a section of its Bylaws, with a simple majority of its 17 voting members. The current rule was adopted at the time of CUNY’s last chancellor search, to avoid having the interim position “turn into a campaign platform,” The New York Times reported in 1997.

CUNY’s Manual of General Policy has a similarly worded restriction against an interim college president being a candidate for the permanent position at that school. In 1999, however, the board added an amendment that allows for exceptions. The most recent such exception came in January of this year, when Diane Call, interim president of Queensborough Community College, was appointed as QCC’s president by the Board of Trustees.

The board’s appointment of Kelly as interim chancellor “makes a ton of sense,” commented Michael Busch, editor of the GC Advocate. “He’s smart and politically savvy.” As GC president, Busch said, Kelly “has been able to do a lot without attracting lots of negative attention.” How Kelly handles the issues that confront him as interim chancellor, particularly Pathways, will determine whether that continues to be the case.

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