By Jon Marcus
THE SQUAT GRAY central administration building of the City University of New York
is wrapped in a giant blue wooden scaffolding topped with barbed wire, awaiting renovation.
It's an irresistible metaphor for a system undergoing a dramatic reconstruction of
||An instructor at John Jay College, one of the City University of New
York's senior colleges, helps students prepare for CUNY's new admissions examinations.
Beginning this semester, CUNY, the nation's largest urban university and the third-largest
public university of any kind in the United States, began to exclude students from
its bachelor's degree programs who could not demonstrate that they are ready to begin
college-level work in math and English. And, for the first time in three decades,
applicants to the system's four-year universities will have to meet minimum scores
on national standardized tests.
The change, urged by the city's bellicose mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and approved
by the university's highly politicized board of regents in November, is revolutionary
for CUNY, which is distinguished by the free tuition once famously offered immigrants
by its City College, and the open admission policy it adopted at a time of heightened
racial tensions in the 1960s.
But it has wider implications as a portent of uncomfortable realities already
facing many other public, and some private, universities in the United States: increasing
political and financial pressures; taxpayer hostility toward remedial education;
the deterioration of urban public schools that supply large numbers of underprepared
students; the stratification of the poor into community colleges and the rich into
four-year universities; and the impact of all of these things on maintaining racial
diversity. It is also an instructive example of how remediation often quietly continues
under another name until the pressure is off. And it has exposed the growing rift
on campuses between the old guard, generally represented by left-leaning but aging
faculty, and more entrepreneurial -- and political -- trustees and administrators.
The protracted debate at CUNY has gotten to the core of these divisions, putting
adversaries at each others' throats. A group of outside consultants called it "an
invasive political theater in which outrageous claims are the norm, policy comes
to reflect anecdote rather than analysis, and almost everyone feels free to talk
without restraint about lines drawn in the sand, about the fundamental negation of
the institution's basic mission, about an institution being adrift" -- a reference
to the title of a sweeping critical report about the system by former Yale University
President Benno Schmidt, who was subsequently appointed vice chairman of the CUNY
Board of Trustees by Giuliani.
On the other hand, the consultants said, the school's faculty and staff had remained
entrenched and jaded, hoping for this latest in a series of outside threats to blow
over without addressing basic problems. "Too many share the notion that policies
come and go, boards change, governors and mayors leave," the consultants said.
"And all the while, the fundamental divisions within the university remain to
||Math professor Bernard Sohmer, chairman of the CUNY Faculty Senate,
believes remedial instruction is an important part of the university's mission.
As with everything in New York, of course, the controversy has been magnified
by the city's proud combativeness, which makes public disagreements into a spectator
sport. But the battle over remedial education also has been taking place before the
backdrop of starry-eyed New York, the place of unbridled opportunity and vast potential,
and of visionaries such as Townsend Harris, founder of the Free Academy in 1847;
it was later renamed City College. "Open the doors to all -- let the children
of the rich and poor take seats together and know no distinction save that of industry,
good conduct and intellect," Townsend urged.
Unlike other such utopian fantasies, Townsend's was generally realized. City College
took successive waves of penniless, hard-working immigrants and turned them into
CEOs and Nobel laureates -- or at least gave them a boost into the middle and upper
classes -- by furnishing a first-class education, tuition-free. It was the centerpiece
of the 17 two- and four-year schools that eventually would be assembled into CUNY.
At last count, there were 11 Nobel Prize winners among the alumni of what came
to be called "the poor man's Harvard." Prominent graduates include Supreme
Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Jonas Salk, Intel founder Andrew Grove, General
Colin Powell, civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph, former New York City Mayor
Ed Koch, Ira Gershwin, novelist Oscar Hijuelos, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, writer
Walter Moseley, and entertainers Ben Gazzara, Paul Simon, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jimmy
Smits. A Standard & Poor's survey found that more top corporate executives had
degrees from CUNY than from any other single university; Yale came in second.
Flagship City College was in Harlem, though, and as the neighborhood changed,
the college did not. Tuition may have been free, but admission requirements were
tough, and students who had attended high schools deep in the inner city often couldn't
get in. So, as an experiment, the college began to accept applicants who were disadvantaged
economically, and who would otherwise have been rejected. In addition to their normal
course of studies, they were offered "stretch," or remedial, classes
"The assumption was that these defects were essentially correctable, a typically
liberal idea, which I happen to agree with," said Bernard Sohmer, chairman of
the CUNY faculty senate and a veteran City College math professor who has taught
there since 1952. "Many, many faculty at City University, from that small beginning
to what eventually became open admission for the entire university in 1970, signed
on to the idea that a university's mission was partly social."
But the changes came too slowly for some African American and Hispanic City College
students, 200 of whom padlocked the gates and took over 17 buildings for two weeks
in 1969 to force an increase in minority enrollment. The resulting open admissions
process was widely misunderstood as having lowered the admission standards for the
four-year universities, including City College; in fact, it assured a place for every
graduate of the New York City schools, but channeled those who weren't prepared to
one of CUNY's community colleges. Meanwhile, standards stayed in place at City College
and the other four-year institutions, with exceptions for some minorities.
Still, the damage to the system's reputation had been done, and it began a long
process of decline. "It became popular to say City College wasn't what it used
to be," Sohmer said. "It was a myth that we had no way of overcoming."
That was not the only problem. After the open admission policy was implemented,
enrollment overran the campuses. Then, in 1976, the city's fiscal crisis forced CUNY
to begin charging tuition. (Today it costs $3,200 a year to attend a CUNY senior
college, $2,500 at the community colleges.) The financial emergency also required
that the state begin to help fund CUNY, giving the mayor and the governor control
over ten of the 17 seats on the Board of Trustees in exchange.
More non-native English speaking immigrants moved in; today, half of CUNY's students
were raised speaking something other than English. And New York's public schools
-- CUNY's source for two-thirds of its students -- were literally falling apart.
Standards clearly did fall, and more and more entering freshmen crowded into remedial
courses to prepare for college-level work.
It was a pronounced, and precipitous, decline. By 1997, 87 percent of freshmen
at community colleges, and 72 percent at universities -- more than double and triple
the national average among comparable schools, respectively -- failed one or more
of CUNY's remediation placement tests, which gauge whether students can read, write
and understand math at high school levels; 55 percent flunked more than one. More
and more full-time faculty found themselves teaching remedial classes.
CUNY education graduates have among the lowest passing rates on state teacher
exams. Students were discovered to have received degrees from CUNY's Hostos Community
College in the South Bronx without being able to read or write English, a revelation
to which trustees responded by making the entrance test part of the graduation requirement
at Hostos and other two-year programs. Even then, hundreds of students expecting
to graduate with associate degrees were held back because they couldn't meet even
high school standards.
CUNY had had no permanent chancellor for nearly two years. The top five jobs were
filled by temporary appointees. The presidencies of eight of the 17 undergraduate
campuses were open for all or part of that time. Long-range planning stopped. Budget
allocations rose little beyond inflation. The university was vulnerable to attack,
and attack it Giuliani did.
"Central to CUNY's historic mission is a commitment to provide broad access,
but its students' high dropout rates and low graduation rate raise the question,
‘Access to what?'" reported Schmidt when Giuliani asked him to investigate the
institution. The system was adrift, he said, and in a spiral of decline. Remedial
education, Schmidt said, "has been a contributing factor to this failure…and
a distraction from the main business of the university. CUNY was not conceived as
a second-chance high school."
In their response, "An Institution Affirmed," a group of faculty, students
and other CUNY supporters argued that the real problems included a 40 percent cut
in state funding and a 90 percent decline in city funding between 1980 and 1997,
and an increase in the proportion of classes taught by part-time instructors from
40 percent to 60 percent.
As CUNY's critics went to work, remediation quickly came into their gunsights.
Leading the charge was Herman Badillo, a former congressman and expected future candidate
for mayor, and a close ally of Giuliani -- and a CUNY grad -- who said the system
had been squandering its resources on weak students who never graduated. "The
fact is that remediation is nothing other than high school work," Badillo said.
"That's what it is." He said higher admission standards also would encourage
applicants to try harder in high school.
Sohmer likens detractors of remediation to a business manager at City College who,
in the 1960s, had resisted adding services for students attending night school at
an hour when most administrative offices were closed. "His argument was, ‘When
I went through the evening session, nobody helped me,'" said Sohmer. "That's
sort of Herman's approach, and the guys who believe that anybody can do anything
they want if they really wanted to, and instantly you have no obligation to these
people. They were the group that moved into being in charge, and their constituents
went right along with it."
||"CUNY cannot be a second-chance high school," says Vice
Chancellor Louise Mirrer, who is implementing the university's new admissions policies.
Soon the Quinnipiac Polling Institute was reporting that 72 percent of New Yorkers
supported raising admissions standards at CUNY's senior colleges. In another survey
by the Business Council of New York State, 85 percent of respondents said higher
standards would produce better-prepared employees.
Even inside CUNY, there was animosity directed toward remediation. Lois Cronholm,
former provost and interim president of Baruch College, said remedial courses had
a devastating effect on an institution, and claimed to have eliminated them from
her school in 1998. The president of Queens College was more crude, reportedly demeaning
remedial students in a meeting with members of the city's bar association. "(Garbage)
in, (garbage) out," President Allen Lee Sessoms was quoted as saying, according
to an expurgated record of the comments. "If you take in (garbage) and turn
out (garbage) that is slightly more literate, you're still left with (garbage)."
Sessoms says his remarks were taken out of context, but his lawyer, who was present
at the interview, admits he "used a somewhat ‘salty' term as a synonym for ‘academically
...Nor were all the faculty enamored of remediation. The English department at
City College, for example, originally wouldn't teach remedial writing, reasoning
that they were literature specialists. (They eventually helped create a writing program.)
"The easiest person to teach is a well-qualified doctoral student in your field,"
said Sohmer. "That's not even a hard job. It's interesting, it's valuable, it's
exciting, but it's not hard."
...Giuliani made Badillo chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees, then persuaded
the board to appoint the like-minded Matthew Goldstein, the former president of Baruch
College, to be chancellor. Goldstein is the first CUNY graduate to hold that post.
"I do not believe our senior colleges should be in the remediation business,"
Goldstein said. "I think the community colleges are most appropriate for showing
up students' deficiencies and giving them the ability to move on to four-year institutions."
The battle peaked with a proposal by the besieged Board of Trustees to bar from
CUNY's four-year colleges all entering students who failed any one of three skills
tests in reading, writing and math. That would have shut out 38 percent of white
graduates, 67 percent of African Americans, and about 70 percent of Hispanics and
Asians, studies showed; they would have been funnelled into the community colleges,
whose students are far less likely to ultimately receive four-year degrees than students
who go straight to four-year schools.
Ena Farley, a trustee who voted against this plan, said it would have forced people
to "beg and cringe and crawl" to get a higher education. Her colleague,
Arnold Gardner, said he would have preferred a discussion about "how to bring
people into higher education, rather than how to keep them out."
But Louise Mirrer, the vice chancellor who was brought in to implement the changes,
said: "If all you focus on is bringing people in, you will find, as we have,
that some students will not succeed. I don't think that's a very effective way of
providing access. You have to have the confidence that you bring people in in a way
that they have a chance to be successful."
In the end, trustees narrowly approved a slightly less restrictive measure, with
Giuliani in the background threatening to cut off tens of millions of city dollars
if they failed to do so (though a judge has since ruled that the mayor's ultimatum
was a violation of state law). CUNY, they decided, would admit students to the four-year
campuses based on their high school grades and standardized test scores, but then
bar them from enrolling if placement tests show they still need remedial work.
Like most compromises, the new policy is complicated. Every applicant to CUNY's
senior colleges will have to take a national standardized test such as the SAT or
ACT to be considered for admission. Those who fail to meet a certain cutoff on those
tests -- for instance, SAT math and verbal scores of 480 (the national average is
511 and 505, respectively) -- will be given the CUNY reading, writing and math exams.
Students who fail any one of those will be required to take a one-semester transition
course called Prelude to Success at a CUNY community college, but can simultaneously
attend a senior college, where they would take a mix of for-credit and remedial courses
taught by community college faculty.
After a semester, those who then can pass new special entry tests will be allowed
to transfer to the four-year school officially. Under special exemptions to these
new rules, about 2,000 students per year would be accepted, including about 1,700
whose poverty and educational backgrounds qualify them for the existing SEEK (Search
for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) program, plus another 400 who are non-native
||City University of New York Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, former president
of Baruch College, is the first CUNY graduate to hold the system's top job.
The state Board of Regents approved the trustees' policy, but only through the
year 2002, when they promised to review it; all four of the African American and
Hispanic regents voted against the plan, a symbol of the racial divide between its
supporters and opponents. And, in another compromise, the starting date at City,
Lehman, York and Medgar Evers colleges, whose overwhelmingly minority populations
would be most affected, was delayed until September of 2001. The changes took effect
in January at Queens, Brooklyn, Baruch and Hunter colleges, and will be implemented
at the College of Staten Island, the New York City Technical Institute and John Jay
College next September.
The impact still is hard to gauge. So far, 248 students who had already been admitted
to those four colleges for the spring semester got letters saying they would not,
in fact, be allowed to attend. They were invited to enroll in free "immersion"
classes in English, writing and math on CUNY campuses this semester, then take placement
tests to determine whether they were ready for college-level work. They also were
given the option of joining the Prelude to Success program at a CUNY community college.
Initially, there were reports that half of all students who applied to senior
colleges would be excluded under the new rules. Now that the dust has settled, CUNY
says that about 1,400 of the 14,600 freshmen who typically enter the four-year colleges
each year are likely to be kept out.
The independent consultants are even more optimistic. They estimate that about
1,750 applicants to the four-year schools will be found to need remediation. Of those,
750 will require only a summer review course to be ready by the fall, 500 more will
be eligible for Prelude to Success, and another 280 will be candidates for a year-round
immersion program to bring them up to speed. That means about 230 students who once
would have been accepted into a bachelor's degree program will be detoured to a community
college. And, in spite of earlier predictions that the community colleges could not
absorb an influx of such students, CUNY says there is room for as many as 5,000 in
the community colleges, far more than are expected to attend.
Critics, on the other hand, predict that countless others will be discouraged
from even trying to get into CUNY. They also allege that SAT scores are skewed by
income level, meaning disadvantaged students will be unfairly singled out. And they
are dubious of promises that the tougher standards will force improvement in the
city's public schools, the weakest link in this chain. "Almost no one expects
the city's public high schools to meet this challenge," the independent consultants
"It's a big challenge, but I think they feel very strongly that their students
should be prepared for college or to work right out of high school," Mirrer
said in her office, minutes after meeting with a group of public school superintendents.
"We see ourselves in some respects as driving the school system, but in other
respects we're driven by them. CUNY cannot be a second-chance high school."
In fact, according to Mirrer, CUNY's reputation as an academic institution is
bound to improve as the public sees it cracking down. "As the image of the university
improves, the range of students we attract will expand," Mirrer said. "For
some students, we have not been the school of first choice. We're hoping we will
become that." And, because they won't be bogged down in remedial courses, she
added, students will graduate more quickly. "We do want them to graduate, and
we want them to graduate quickly," she said. "That's why we're here. That's
why they're here."
(That CUNY is better than people seem to think is evident in a small exhibit in the
lobby of the main administration building, which displays not only photographs of
prominent alumni, but also books by faculty authors including Walt Whitman authority
Gary Schmigdall; Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, whose book Gotham won last year's
Pulitzer Prize for History; Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook; and
Kenneth Jackson, editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. "We've been sort
of a jewel in a dusty showcase, and nobody cares," Sohmer sighed.)
||As part of their preparation to take CUNY's new admissions examinations,
students in a John Jay College classroom work on a "thesis statement" about
poet Emily Dickinson.
As for the political realities, Mirrer said, "We're a public institution.
We have to be responsive to our public. The legislature, the mayor, the voters, they
all have a right to know how our money is being spent. This is not a matter of curricular
control. This is a matter of financial accountability." Public officials and
business leaders, among others, have a right to be concerned about workforce development
and economic ramifications of university policies, she said.
And they are concerned, increasingly, all over the United States. The California
State University system wants to reduce the need for remediation to not more than
ten percent of regularly admitted freshmen by the fall of 2007. In Massachusetts,
remedial instruction has been limited to five percent of freshmen at public four-year
universities. Increasingly, underprepared students are being steered to community
colleges. Mirrer has fielded inquiries about the CUNY plan from schools in Texas,
California, Massachusetts and Georgia. "Everybody's interested in us,"
But there is also a counter-movement suggesting that remediation may be the wrong
target. A Ford Foundation study, prepared by the Institute for Higher Education Policy,
concluded that remedial courses are "a core function of higher education"
and a good investment for society at a modest cost. National estimates have placed
the cost of remedial work at about $1 billion a year out of a higher education budget
of $115 billion. (By comparison, CUNY spent five percent of its annual budget on
remediation.) Eighty-one percent of the nation's public four-year colleges offer
remedial courses to enrolled students, and about 30 percent of all entering freshmen
take at least one remedial class. Even the State University of New York, which has
more white and middle-class students than CUNY, still offers remedial classes at
its four-year colleges, inviting charges from CUNY boosters and city dwellers of
an upstate double standard.
Nor is there evidence that students, in general, are proving less prepared for
college than they used to be. Three federal government surveys since 1983 have found
no evidence of a significant increase in the demand for remedial education, and U.S.
universities have the world's second-highest graduation rate. In many states, the
perceived rise in remedial education at the university and college level has been
used to bash public primary and secondary education. The culprits: interests who
favor such alternatives as charter schools and government vouchers for private school
tuition, said David Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University
of Virginia, who has studied the trend.
"I see the remediation issue at the higher ed level as kind of the extension
of some of this critical effort at K-12," Breneman said. "There are some
very powerful forces out there that are doing everything they can to undermine support
for public schools to gain support for everything from charter schools to profit-making
schools, you name it. To some degree, those same forces now are trying to operate
on higher education, and they're using remedial education as the wedge. You can certainly
see that in the CUNY situation."
The open secret is that remediation continues under other names when the spotlight
shifts, and this is also true at CUNY. Even after its tough-talking provost said
she had eliminated remedial courses, Baruch College continued to provide about 85,000
hours annually of remediation; about 20 percent of its students were admitted even
after failing at least one of the three entrance exams. Sohmer, whose daughter was
a teaching assistant while a graduate student at Harvard, said, "Most kids there
needed remedial writing. And if it's true at Harvard, I'm sure it's going to be true
at CUNY. So we'll call it something else, but we'll still be doing some kind of remediation.
We'll have to."
He's right. CUNY has asked for $9 million to double "academic support"
offered to its students: writing labs, tutoring, workshops and other services. "I
would be very surprised to find a student who couldn't benefit from academic support,"
said Vice Chancellor Mirrer.
CUNY also hopes to vastly expand several other such assistance programs. It has
asked to more than quadruple, to $2.4 million, the annual allocation for College
Now, which provides early morning, for-credit college preparation courses to high
school students. Funding for a language immersion program would increase from $4
million a year to $5 million a year, and year-round and summer transition programs
also would expand.
But the controversy isn't over yet. The outside consultants found that CUNY has
no contingency plan to provide support services if more students than expected need
them, and has made no arrangements for training faculty and staff to provide the
new forms of remediation. A group of CUNY professors and others has filed a federal
complaint that ending traditional remediation is racially discriminatory. And 16
high-profile lawyers, educators and business leaders convened by the Bar Association
of the City of New York concluded that the changes "will have an unacceptably
disproportionate effect on those very low-income minority and immigrant groups who
are most dependent on CUNY to provide a leg up onto the economic ladder," and
that CUNY could not afford to pay for the programs it has promised will replace remediation.
As for the students, many fear the worst. "When they first come to college,
people need some extra help," said Nancy Luna, a freshman at CUNY's Hunter College,
who is enrolled in a remedial course. "It's a lot different than high school.
I needed help in math. I have to pass it. That's for me, but for the next students,
they won't have that. They'll have to go to community college. That will discourage
people from coming here at all." Tatiana Diaz said, "I needed help organizing
my time, especially study time. I needed help getting organized. Without that, I
don't know, my grades would have been pretty bad."
Sohmer, on whose office wall hangs a fading poster showing racing chariots labeled
Harvard, Yale and City University, with the legend, "Who will be the next Number
1?" said the university has been a pawn in a bigger game. "Why suddenly
what was once a virtuous act is suddenly considered a sin, I don't know," he
Another of the trustees who voted against the changes, James Murphy, sees it that
way, too. "The remediation issue is really a charade. It's a meat cleaver that
says, as of a date certain there will be no remediation at the four-year colleges,"
he said. "And the door is being slammed shut."
Jon Marcus is a senior editor at Boston Magazine, and covers U.S higher education
for the Times of London.