Editorial: CUNY, Resurgent

Matthew Goldstein announced recently that he’ll step down as chancellor of City University in a few months. His retirement is well earned. After all, Dr. Goldstein has spent more than a decade in tireless service to CUNY’s 260,000 students, and he leaves behind a radically transformed institution that has found its way after years wandering in the thickets of ideologically charged pedagogy.

Dr. Goldstein took over at CUNY in 1999 after serving as president of Baruch College. His appointment followed an exhaustive study that concluded that CUNY was, in the task force’s words, “an institution adrift.” CUNY’s senior colleges were filled with students who lacked basic skills, a legacy of the system’s open-admissions policy. Degrees from the system’s four-year institutions were becoming worthless. Employers complained that many CUNY graduates were simply not prepared for the workplace.

Rudolph Giuliani and George Pataki came together to put an end to the madness. As CUNY’s union and faculty senate screamed in agony, the mayor and the governor imposed new rules at CUNY: the four-year colleges would no longer offer remedial classes. That task was turned over to the system’s two-year institutions. Academic standards at the four-year schools were raised, putting an end to open admissions at the senior colleges.

Dr. Goldstein was given the assignment of implementing these drastic, needed and controversial changes. He and the mayor, the governor and members of CUNY’s board were accused of being latter-day George Wallaces, standing at the door of opportunity to deny access to minorities.

In the dozen-plus years since the revolution at CUNY, the four-year colleges are thriving, academic standards are higher than they’ve been in decades, and the institution’s reputation has been restored. More than a quarter of freshmen at CUNY’s most-competitive schools have SAT scores of 1200 or higher. When Dr. Goldstein took office, that figure was about 12 percent.

There has been a change in CUNY’s ethnic makeup, although it is not nearly as drastic as critics portrayed it. According to a report published last year, African-Americans make up about 10 percent of freshmen at the four-year schools, down from 17 percent a dozen years ago. The Latino population has risen and fallen over the years. Interestingly, the percentage of white students has fallen slightly, to about 35 percent, despite the suggestion that reform would turn CUNY into a land of white privilege. Asians are now the largest racial group at CUNY, making up 37 percent of the student body, up from about a quarter at the time of the Giuliani-Pataki reforms.

Dr. Goldstein managed this transformation quietly and effectively. It is no exaggeration to say that New York will reap the rewards of his tenure for decades. Well done, Dr. Goldstein.