Out with the Old, In with the…Same Old?


What a couple of weeks it’s been at CUNY.

Let’s start with Chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s retirement from the university. On April 12, the chancellor quietly announced his imminent departure in a Friday evening email to the CUNY community. “Serving this exceptional university alongside so many extraordinary colleagues,” Goldstein wrote, “has been the greatest privilege of my professional life.” Along with the usual pleasantries common to leave-taking, the chancellor also made sure to praise his own record at the institution. “Since I began as chancellor in 1999, we have focused on raising the academic profile of the University while maintaining our fundamental goals of access and opportunity. The results of our emphasis on high standards, academic rigor, and student preparation…have been record enrollments, increased graduation rates, and more and more high-achieving students coming to CUNY…Today, CUNY is a transformed institution, re-energized by the creative, dedicated work of professionals across our twenty-four colleges and professional schools.”

In response to the announcement, the New York Times published a love letter editorial to the chancellor under the banner headline, “The Man Who Saved CUNY.” The Times highlighted his commitment to raising academic standards of excellence in the university, and celebrated Goldstein for blowing air back into the administrative lungs of the system’s bureaucracy while managing to also corral huge amounts of capital into CUNY coffers. In fact, the Times piece mirrored Goldstein’s letter to the CUNY community so closely that some joked the chancellor had written the article himself. And while the Times coverage hints momentarily that Goldstein’s tenure wasn’t completely without controversy, any dissent from within the system was shrugged off as run-of-the-mill contention common to any institution of higher learning. “This is, after all, academia,” the Times wrote.

What the Times didn’t mention in its rush to produce puff are all the less palatable legacies of the Goldstein years. As readers of the Advocate are well aware, Goldstein’s time as chancellor was a period where power had distinct privilege over the public interest. As a letter to the editor of the Times penned by CUNY students makes clear, “Mr. Goldstein’s initiatives lowered academic standards and restricted faculty autonomy, while black and Latino enrollment dropped. During his tenure, Mr. Goldstein’s total compensation doubled to well over half a million dollars, and top administrators’ salaries increased. Meanwhile, tuition has almost doubled, and more than half of CUNY classes are taught by adjuncts who make under $20,000 annually.”

The Times failed to recognize other features of Goldstein’s time at CUNY, as well. The chancellor aggressively walked all over CUNY’s history of faculty governance concerning curricular decision making in his push to implement Pathways despite strenuous objections throughout the system. He was slow to defend the academic freedom of faculty, or absent altogether, when it came under attack. And as the student letter quoted above points out, “suppressing dissent has become policy, enacted in police assaults on peaceful protests at Baruch and Brooklyn College.”

But coverage of Goldstein’s retirement by the popular media wasn’t all rosy. Compare the Times whitewash to how the New York Post reported the story. Following Goldstein’s announcement, the Post’s Susan Edelman focused on something entirely different—the golden parachute being organized for the departing chancellor by CUNY’s Board of Trustees. “We’ll craft a special package for Matt,” Board Chairman Benno Schmidt told Edelman, adding that “I think he’s been underpaid as chancellor.” This, despite the fact that Goldstein pulls in just under half a million dollars a year in salary with a generous $90,000 annual allowance for housing.

The real scandal here, the Post reports, is that Goldstein has collected other revenue streams as well during his time as CUNY’s chief executive. “While chancellor, he has served since 2003 as a funds trustee at JPMorgan Chase & Co., which paid him $325,000 in 2011. Last December, the board overseeing mutual funds elected Goldstein its new chairman, a post that paid his predecessor $500,000 in 2011.”

This is the sort of story that might have generated more outrage had it not been overshadowed by another bombshell development at CUNY. The Macaulay Honors College announced that same week that former director of the CIA, General David Petraeus, will be teaching classes at CUNY next semester. In an interview with the New York Times, the former spymaster’s lawyer, Robert Barnett, said that Petraeus “had been approached by many universities, but settled on CUNY because he admires the diversity of students, locations, and offerings.” Petraeus himself issued a statement of intent, saying he planned to teach a seminar “that examines the developments that could position the United States—and our North American partners—to lead the world out of the current global economic slowdown.”

Perhaps sensing that Petraeus’s proposal was anchored more firmly in rhetoric than clarity or substance, Macaulay Dean Ann Kirschner explained to the Times that Petraeus’s plan “is in keeping with his research interest in energy, advanced manufacturing, life sciences and information.” That may be. But from the sounds of things, his interests are also in reinventing himself as an expert in these areas. The appointment to Macaulay allows him a year of university-based support to transition from public humiliation to a highly-paid career in private industry consulting.

But back to the chancellor. As the Petraeus appointment grabbed everyone’s attention, there were still questions about who would be tapped to replace Goldstein at CUNY Central. The day the chancellor announced his pending retirement, a friend joked to me that Bill Kelly would take the helm at CUNY headquarters on 42nd Street. Late in the evening on April 23, her humor proved prescient. A few hours after Petraeus officially joined the faculty of Macaulay, the Executive Board of the Board of Trustees met to rubberstamp Kelly’s selection as interim chancellor. His appointment was announced that night.

The choice to tap Kelly for interim chancellor makes perfect sense. He’s young(ish), charismatic, whip-smart, and by all accounts well liked. He’s also a gifted bureaucrat and institutional leader. In the fifteen or so years that he held top positions at the Grad Center—first as provost, then vice president, and finally president—Kelly visibly and sure-handedly contributed to the strengthening of the school, and managed to do so without provoking much enduring antagonism or resentment. Indeed, his regrettable characterization of the GC recently as a “roach motel” was remarkable for being not just offensive, but surprising. It’s hard to think of another instance where Kelly openly betrayed the student body and undermined its integrity either through carelessness or with intent.

So what does Kelly’s appointment mean for CUNY moving forward? With respect to things at the Graduate Center, there’s the question of who will replace the president when he moves uptown into his new position. Kelly offered the most obvious suggestion in his letter announcing the transition. At the board meeting that secured his selection as interim chancellor, Kelly “recommended to Chancellor Goldstein the appointment of Provost Chase Robinson as Interim President of the Graduate Center.” There’s nothing to suggest that Robinson won’t get the nod, though the title change hasn’t been made official yet.

In terms of university policy: probably not much. Kelly will take over from Goldstein on July 1, and will almost surely be focused on keeping the ship of CUNY afloat during its period of leadership transition. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll be interested in rocking the boat. And while we can’t possibly know how much time Kelly will actually spend running the show from his new digs just up the block on 42nd Street, chances are it won’t be terribly long. The only outstanding question on this front is whether or not current CUNY protocols allow for Kelly himself to be appointed to the position permanently.

Up until recently, the answer was decidedly “no.” CUNY rules expressly forbade interim chancellors and college presidents from permanent appointments. But the rules of the game changed recently with the permanent appointment of Diane Call at Queensborough Community College after she had been serving in a temporary capacity as acting president. Could Kelly take advantage of this new precedent? Right now, it is difficult to tell, though everyone at CUNY Central, including Kelly himself, has made clear that a nationwide search for a new chancellor will shortly get underway.

All of this said, Kelly’s new powers are not exclusively bureaucratic, nor limited by his temporary appointment. As chancellor, even an interim one, Kelly will enjoy the power of the bully pulpit. As one student commented on the announcement, “He’s free to speak about the important issues of the day, start campaigns for causes that are just, and recognize how fucked CUNY is and address it.” This seems exactly right, and something that CUNY students should not only hope for, but organize to bring about.

The reality is that Kelly will face significant pressure to hold the line established by Goldstein during his time in charge. The general contours of the incoming chancellor’s agenda are familiar—raise money, figure out ways to sustain and increase enrollment across the system, consolidate and centralize decision making control in the executive office, and press on, full steam ahead, with Pathways.

But Bill Kelly is not Matthew Goldstein. He will doubtlessly continue to attract private giving to the university, itself not entirely a bad thing, but could do so according to different rules governing how money translates into political power within the system—a tightrope act he successfully navigated at the Grad Center. He could propose inventive new ways to both stimulate healthy enrollment at CUNY and reestablish its historic mission as an urban public institution of higher learning for poor, working-class and immigrant New Yorkers—goals which are naturally interlocking, not at odds as the Goldstein administration would have us believe. And in the face of a rising chorus of dissent, Kelly could place a moratorium on the implementation of Pathways. In its place, he could assemble a fully-representative task force of CUNY community members to transparently evaluate Pathways and assess its probable impact on teaching and learning throughout the system. And he could do so in the name of ensuring City University’s commitment to academic excellence and rigor—a goal against which no one should be opposed.

If he doesn’t do these things or something similar, Kelly will simply serve as the temporary caretaker of Matthew Goldstein’s poisonous legacy, nothing more. The odds are that this is precisely what he intends to do. Too bad. Kelly has the ambition and talent to put his stamp on the CUNY system in profoundly important ways—even as interim chancellor—and could do so without taking many risks. There’s real opportunity here, however small, to affect change in our university. Let’s encourage him to understand this as well, and prepare to work together to make it happen. The alternative—business as usual—is unacceptable.

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