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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

1 of 5 Stories

Politicizing University Governance
Conservatives appointed by Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani now control governing boards of New York’s public universities

By Jon Marcus

If the meeting in the Albany, New York conference room had been a university lecture, the professor would have stopped to reprimand the class for not paying attention. Half the people in the audience were frantically reading, instead of listening to the discussion.

But these weren't students who hadn't done their homework. They were presidents from campuses of the State University of New York. And they had just been handed a proposal for a core curriculum requiring 30 credit hours of classes in ten subjects, including math, foreign language, communications, natural science, social science and American, western and other world civilizations. Even some of the members of the SUNY Board of Trustees, which was voting on the plan that day, had seen it for the first time less than a week before.

The core curriculum was being pushed by conservative advocacy groups and by think tanks including the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the proprivatization Manhattan Institute, and the Empire Foundation for Policy Research, an arm of the anti-tax group CHANGE-NY (Citizens Helping Achieve New Growth and Employment in New York), which is closely tied to Republican Governor George Pataki. One of the proposal's principal architects was a founding member of CHANGE-NY named Candace de Russy, who Pataki had appointed to the board of trustees. There had been little or no input from the faculty.

It was a pivotal moment in the contentious process through which the governor had gained control of the 16-member board of trustees. Within 13 months after Pataki took office in 1995, his largely conservative appointees comprised a majority, driving out then-chancellor Thomas Bartlett and pushing for reducing state subsidies, privatizing graduate schools, raising admission standards, and eliminating courses in English as a second language.

When a sexuality conference at the SUNY campus in New Paltz won national notoriety for including presentations about the use of sex toys, Pataki's trustees rejected a review that said the conference was within the bounds of academic inquiry, and they called for the firing of New Paltz President Roger Bowen. "Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined that a New Paltz women's studies conference would create this kind of stir," said Susan Lehrer, who coordinated the event. "It wasn't that the content of the conference was so dramatically different as that the political climate was."

 
Roscoe Brown, former president of Bronx Community College, now heads a new advocacy group called Friends of CUNY. 
At least one trustee demanded Bowen's resignation again the next year for allowing a performance of The Vagina Monologues on his campus. "The trustees weren't always the best" before Pataki, one former SUNY president observed. "But they did serve as buffers against outside interference. Now they're conduits for it." And Bowen, in a closed-door meeting with members of the SUNY faculty union, said, "It appears that every new member of the SUNY Board of Trustees appointed over the past six or seven years has passed a political litmus test. They have had to demonstrate their bona fides as Republican Party members or as 'Pataki Democrats.'"

In the end, the core curriculum was passed by a vote of ten to three. SUNY faculty responded with an unprecedented declaration of no confidence in the trustees. The board had "failed in its responsibilities by allowing ideological views to shape academic decisions, failing to advocate for strong financial support for SUNY, (and) failing to conduct fair and open searches for senior administrators," the declaration said.

SUNY had become the definitive battleground in a culture war between liberals and conservatives, a cautionary tale for other universities where boards of trustees have begun to pursue far more intrusive political agendas than in the past, while activist organizations such as the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni have become more influential.

Public higher education in particular has become a reform target of conservatives. Core curricula like New York's also have been proposed in Virginia and in Pennsylvania, where state Education Secretary Eugene Hickok, Jr. has questioned the academic rigor of the curriculum and teacher-education programs, and where Hickok, an appointee of Republican Governor Tom Ridge, has a seat on the governing boards of each state university.

 
  A women’s studies conference at SUNY New Paltz, including presentations about the use of sex toys, brought seething criticism from conservatives.
Florida has handed over control of public universities to individual boards appointed by Republican Governor Jeb Bush. That state's commissioner of education, Charlie Crist, has called for replacing tenure with a pay-for-performance system, attacked administrators at Florida Atlantic University for allowing a play in which a Christ-like character is portrayed as a homosexual, and declared that academic freedom is "the final refuge in which professors hide when confronted with the absurdity and ignorance of their decisions."

Meanwhile, in New York City, combative Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was transforming the City University of New York on the same timetable as Pataki's SUNY makeover, appointing trustees who backed his plan for raising admissions standards and ending remedial programs for many students. CUNY's board also is now considering a core curriculum.

So pronounced is this trend that the Association of Governing Boards adopted a report in April complaining that "external pressures have led some trustees and political leaders to abandon long-accepted principles of citizen trusteeship. Some believe board members should be responsive to narrow interests; others use their trusteeships inappropriately to advance personal visibility, aspirations or policy goals; still others fail to grasp that trustees are responsible for seeking consensus and acting collectively as a board, and not as individuals."

Nonsense, said de Russy, of the SUNY board. She said too many other university boards of trustees "have ceded their roles as final guarantors of institutional integrity. Many see themselves primarily as fundraisers or cheerleaders. Often they do not set clear educational goals. They don't even rigorously select or review their CEOs." Intervention by trustees like SUNY's represents "a reclamation of normal oversight that's to be expected," de Russy said. "Trustees have ceded too much lawful and necessary oversight to presidents and (faculty) councils. The public is demanding higher standards. We have seen it dramatically at the KÐ12 level. It shouldn't be surprising that that same urge for accountability would hit the higher education level."

But Richard Novak, director of the governing boards' association Center for Public Higher Education Trusteeship and Governance, said the organization's declaration was "a reminder to members that they need to adhere to good principles. There have been reports of the greater politicization of board members. Some of the stuff is pretty egregious in some places."

Novak was speaking generally, but the "examples of common pressures" cited in the association's report could have come directly from New York, where Pataki and Giuliani have made no secret of their desire to change the universities. "If you were running a business, you would invent this system if you didn't want it to be successful," Giuliani has said. He said CUNY, the largest urban university in America, with 200,000 students, was so bad it should be "blown up" and begun again.

The university practically did blow up, figuratively speaking, when after three decades of open or nearly open admission, Giuliani and Pataki appointed enough members of the CUNY Board of Trustees to essentially end remedial programs at most of the system's senior colleges. The move followed a report that found significant problems, including that 72 percent of senior college freshmen and 87 percent of community college freshman had failed one or more of CUNY's three placement exams.

"If a student cannot read, a college education is wasted on him," says Heather Mac Donald, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute and a frequent critic of the university who is a member of the mayor's task force on CUNY. "Reading is the barest minimum requirement. These tests hardly require students to demonstrate anything but the most basic skills, in fact, skills that would probably be considered still too elementary if anyone were honest. What is unfair to students is to admit them to academic programs for which they are unprepared, and have them waste their time barely hanging on. Let us mention the taxpayers' interest as well: It is perfectly appropriate for taxpayers to expect that their subsidy for students' education be spent on students prepared to take full advantage of that education."

Hundreds of professors, students, and alumni testified against the proposal to eliminate remediation, but Pataki speeded up the background check necessary to name the trustee who would become the ninth and deciding vote in favor of phasing out remedial classes over three years at all 11 CUNY senior colleges. All five CUNY trustees appointed by Giuliani, and four of the six appointed by Pataki, voted in favor of ending remediation. Even as the decision was being deliberated, 23 people were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly disrupting the meeting, or for refusing to leave, including Edward Sullivan, a Democrat who chairs the state Assembly's education committee, in what the state Committee on Open Government later said was a violation of the public meeting law.

Even some of Pataki's appointees were left uneasy by the decision. One, John Morning, accused the governor and Giuliani of political interference to ensure that remediation would be ended. "Left to its own devices and its own conscience, this board would not have taken that step," Morning said. "It's worse than that," said Sullivan: "The mayor directs them as to how to vote. The mayor and the governor should absent themselves from the day-to-day workings of the board."

But Herman Badillo, a close advisor to Giuliani, who Pataki was soon to name as chairman of the board of trustees (and who stepped down in June to run for mayor himself), said: "Anyone who ignores the mayor and the governor is a fool. The money comes from the mayor and the governor and the policies come from the mayor and the governor. They are the top elected officials."

That point was not lost on Giuliani, whose governing style sometimes has included the use of his budgetary clout, most famously, his threat to evict the Brooklyn Museum of Art for refusing to cancel a controversial art show. Giuliani said he would withhold $79.4 million in funding to CUNY if it failed to require a qualifying test of entering students who took remedial courses. A state Supreme Court justice later ruled that the mayor had exceeded his authority, and that such decisions should be left to educators, but the CUNY board imposed the tests anyway.

Giuliani also promised to withhold $110 million in city funds from CUNY community colleges if they didn't require an 80 percent attendance rate. "If [the students] don't show up to be educated, why are we subsidizing their education?" the mayor asked. In April, Giuliani threatened to withhold a quarter of the CUNY budget unless the remaining remedial training for incoming students is privatized, and an outside company hired to review testing standards.

Pataki, too, has used the power of the purse. As a candidate in 1995, he criticized the state Education Department as "a bloated bureaucracy." Last year, he cut its staff, stripped it of oversight of private and public colleges, and transferred its library and archives to his control. He also took away authority over the charter school application process and split it between his SUNY trustees and the Board of Regents, whose members are appointed by the Democrat-controlled state Legislature (although Pataki has said he ultimately wants the power to select the regents' chancellor and nominate prospective regents).

 
SUNY New Paltz President Roger Bowen, under fire for permitting sexual topics to be discussed on campus, says he is “not in the mainstream, at least not in New York at this time.” 
Among other charter schools the SUNY board approved is the Rochester Leadership Academy, which teaches students about creationism as a scientifically based theory competing with the theory of evolution. (SUNY trustees now are considering the concept of charter colleges, an idea being pushed by the conservative National Association of Scholars, which would operate like charter schools and get a share of the public higher education budget. Faculty say the concept is a way to privatize public higher education and end tenure.)

If there were threats before the fact, there also has been retribution after. President Bowen, at New Paltz, has reportedly been denied a pay raise and encouraged to leave. "I strongly believe partisan politics have no place in higher education," he told the student newspaper. "But I am not in the mainstream, at least not in New York at this time."

Vincent Aceto, a widely respected 40-year faculty veteran at the University at Albany, was turned down by the SUNY trustees for a distinguished service professorship, the university's highest honor, after leading the no-confidence vote against them during the core curriculum controversy. Aceto, a professor of information science, finally received the honor after the incident was widely publicized. A member of the CUNY board who voted against the mayor's choice for president of Hunter College was removed by Giuliani and replaced by a deputy mayor. "These are world-class universities, and look at the pettiness that's gone on," said William Scheuerman, president of United University Professions, the SUNY faculty union.

Many people close to the governor and the mayor have been given university appointments. The aforementioned nominee to head up Hunter College was Jennifer Raab, who chaired Giuliani's Landmarks Commission and was issues director of his 1989 mayoral campaign. She was installed despite the fact that Matthew Goldstein, the CUNY chancellor installed by Giuliani and Pataki, preferred another candidate. Trustees acknowledged that they had been pressured by the mayor and the governor; one, the Reverend Michael C. Crimmins, protested "the outside political intimidation." Students, faculty and staff at Hunter issued a resolution of no confidence in the board of trustees because of Raab's selection.

 
  Hunter College political scientist Kenneth Sherrill fears “the universities are now politicized forever.”
Despite such opposition, at least four Giuliani deputies or former deputies are now at CUNY, including one who was named to head its research foundation, one who is serving as a labor consultant, and two who are on the board of trustees.

"No one who works for city or state governments should be on the board of trustees," said Roscoe Brown, former president of Bronx Community College and now chairman of a new advocacy group called Friends of CUNY. "What has happened now is that because of the ideological positions of the mayor and also the governor, the initiation of policies has come from outside of the chancellor and the presidents, which is really contrary to the way universities should operate."

Gerald A. Kitzmann, a New Paltz physics professor and representative to that school's faculty senate, compares the situation to the administration of the military. "We have the very best military in the world because we have been able to balance the civilian and military worlds in this country," Kitzmann said. "Can't we at least try to do the same for public higher educational institutions by having persons appointed to the boards of trustee with non-political agendas and knowledge of higher education based on their experience?"

Giuliani's former head of health and hospitals was made dean of health sciences at CUNY; one of his lawyers is the university system's outside counsel; and a consultant to the mayor's campaign committee was given two major CUNY contracts. Giuliani's former press secretary even got a job as an adjunct instructor at CUNY's Baruch College.

There also has been pressure to hire candidates preferred by the mayor and the governor for major posts. Giuliani and Pataki announced the nomination of Goldstein to be CUNY chancellor before the search committee even knew about it. The committee, which had been looking for a new chancellor for almost two years, was allowed to discuss the mayor's nominee at a meeting two days later, 90 minutes before his name was put before the full board of trustees for a vote.

At SUNY, after a national search for a new chancellor that cost the university system $108,667, Pataki's budget director, Robert King, ultimately got the job. The daughter-in-law of the Republican Party chairman was hired for a position in the SUNY chancellor's office. And Bill Paxon, a former Republican congressman who served in the state assembly with Pataki and King, was hired to be SUNY's Washington lobbyist.

Chancellor King's office did not respond to requests for an interview.

 
Much of the criticism by conservative trustees has focused on the State University of New York campus at New Paltz. 
Pataki also was embarrassed when it was disclosed that one of his major fundraisers, named to chair SUNY's Old Westbury College Foundation, was lining up proposals to develop the college's valuable Long Island real estate in ways that would have benefited developers more than students. The land, valued at $60 million, would have generated only about $500,000 a year for the school, while private interests made millions. Two other Pataki fundraisers won a $28 million contract to build new dorms, but were fired because of shoddy work that added $4 million to the cost. And an architect who was given hundreds of thousands of dollars in SUNY contracts turned out to be Pataki's next-door neighbor, and a relative by marriage.

The politicization of these New York universities has not been entirely one-sided. Faced with mounting evidence of patronage, Democratic State Controller Carl McCall urged the creation of an independent panel to screen trustee candidates for SUNY and CUNY. McCall, who may run against Pataki in 2002, didn't volunteer that his own wife serves as president of SUNY's Fashion Institute of Technology. When he joined in the chorus of attacks on the sexuality conference at New Paltz, some liberals attacked then-SUNY Chancellor John Ryan, a former president of Indiana University, for hypocrisy because he served as a trustee of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. When Giuliani started criticizing CUNY, the city council used the opportunity to push him for more funding for schools.

The die has been cast, said Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at CUNY's Hunter College. "What the Republicans have done by politicizing the university is to guarantee that when the Democrats come into power, key elements of the Democratic party are going to demand a return to Democratic values, and heads are going to roll. It's going to become like the Sanitation Department or the Department of Motor Vehicles, they did it to us, and we have to get it back. What I'm afraid of is that the universities are now politicized forever."

In fact, many of the likely candidates to succeed Giuliani have suggested that they would restore remediation to the CUNY system. "No mayoral candidate to my knowledge has unequivocally supported the maintenance of high standards at CUNY, so I suspect that whoever comes into office will cave to the pressures of the faculty union and the advocacy groups," conceded Mac Donald, of the Manhattan Institute. "That will be a bad thing, for CUNY's status quo ante was a pale shadow of what it could become if it stayed committed to high expectations."

 
  Candace de Russy, a conservative member of the SUNY Board of Trustees, defends trustee actions as “a reclamation of normal oversight.”
As he began his campaign for re-election in 1998, Pataki was taken to task by Democrats for the decline of SUNY and CUNY because of budget cuts and tuition increases, even though some of those cuts dated back to earlier Democratic administrations. Two decades of budget cuts had decreased state appropriations to CUNY by 40 percent, and city appropriations by 90 percent. While enrollment was the same, the number of full-time faculty had fallen by half, and 60 percent of courses were being taught by part-time adjuncts.

Tuition had doubled in the previous ten years. New York ranked second to California in tax revenues, but 50th of the 50 states in the percentage of revenues going into public higher education. Only three percent of New York's revenues went to higher education. By contrast, California spent eight percent of its revenues on higher education, and North Carolina spent nine percent. A study underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation found that New York's funding for prisons had increased by almost the same amount as its spending for universities and colleges had decreased. And, built in a monumental spurt when Governor Nelson Rockefeller vastly expanded the system in the early 1960s, many of the campus buildings were deteriorating.

Rockefeller thought that New York could have public research campuses as eminent as the University of California at Berkeley. It hasn't entirely worked out that way, and there has been legitimate frustration with the fact that while campuses like Stony Brook have solid research reputations in the sciences, others have not reached that level.

SUNY is both the youngest and the largest public university system in America. Created in 1948 as a collection of 29 existing state agricultural, technical and teachers' colleges, it has since grown to 64 campuses with 367,000 students, including 35 percent of all New York state's high school graduates.

As SUNY turned 50 in 1998, Pataki neared a re-election bid. He offered a five-year, $3 billion capital plan to help rebuild the dilapidated campuses, and increased funding for CUNY by $87 million, and for SUNY by $118 million, with no tuition increase. It was less than both requested and, as the budget process advanced and the governor came under pressure from his conservative allies, he ended up vetoing millions earmarked to hire more full-time faculty and to increase financial aid for SUNY's 30 community colleges.

The trustees themselves recommended cuts in SUNY's budget, apparently for the first time in the system's history. ("We have a responsibility to provide the best education possible with the wisest use of the finite resources that exist," de Russy said. "We have a responsibility to those who are providing the money, the taxpayers, the parents who are providing the money they pay for tuition, and students' money that they pay for tuition.") They also changed the way they fund the individual schools, so that every campus keeps the tuition and fees it brings in, making them compete for students, instead of turning the money over to the central office and then having it reallocated, a system the conservative Empire Foundation had labeled "socialist." (The new procedure is called the Resource Allocation Method, or RAM.) "It's almost like the guy who shoots his mother and father, then complains about being an orphan," said Brown, of Friends of CUNY.

 
SUNY New Paltz faculty member Susan Lehrer says conservative SUNY trustees are trying to intimidate faculty and administrators. 
The stakes continue to rise on both sides. Conservatives worry that, with Giuliani leaving office in December, pressure to continue his reforms at CUNY will subside. Liberals fear that low-income students will no longer be able to get into CUNY under the higher admissions standards. While defenders of Giuliani's reforms say there has been no appreciable decline in enrollment, detractors allege that the university is trying to cook the numbers. They point out that there has been a sharp increase in the number of students ushered through the admissions process under a waiver program to accept poor students who did not meet the regular entrance criteria.

Faculty and their supporters say top academics won't come to SUNY or CUNY anymore, fearful of political interference. Several top candidates for the job of chancellor of CUNY in 1998 pulled out, including George Washington University President Stephen J. Trachtenberg, who explicitly cited the highly charged political environment.

"I don't know if there's permanent damage, but there's been damage," said Scheuerman, the union president. "Faculty have been fleeing the universities. It's extraordinarily difficult to recruit the best and the brightest." Mac Donald responded: "Who defines 'quality academics?' If by that, you mean advocates of the fearsome race-gender-class triumvirate of identity politics, yes, those academics may well shy away from a school that requires a solid core curriculum in traditional disciplines. There are plenty of quality academics, however, who are in the closet about their dedication to traditional scholarship, who would jump at the opportunity to teach at a university serious about maintaining high standards."

 
  Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has appointed conservative trustees and administrators to the City University of New York and has worked to reduce remedial instruction at CUNY’s senior colleges.
There is also heightening conflict over academic freedom. "I'm a staunch supporter of academic freedom, but the term is somewhat abused," de Russy said. "Let's remember what it is. It's a historic compact between faculty members and the public, which obliges faculty to seek the truth. It is protected speech in the service of truth. It's a privilege. It is not a license to indoctrinate students into political ideologies or any kind of ideology. It is not a license to conduct oneself in any way at all on a college campus."

Some see wide divides, and ominous lessons, and not only in pronouncements such as this one. Sherrill, the Hunter political science professor, said, "There are times when I think that the trustees' vision of a university is Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in straw hats in a canoe out on a lake with a pretty coed. They are, for the most part, people who are opposed ideologically to the public sector, and to providing public benefits to people who are not already privileged."

Sullivan, the state assemblyman, agrees. "They don't want people educated," he said. "They wish that New York was more like Indonesia, where you have a large swath of undereducated people who would be willing to work for less money. The notion that the children of the working families of New York should go to college just like anyone else, to excellent colleges, is anathema to them."

While politics has never been completely absent from public higher education, said Sherrill, "What is different now is that instead of appointing people who can reach the mayor or the governor if the university ever is in trouble, they are enforcing the will of their electoral coalition by appointing people whose appointment is contingent on the goodwill of the mayor or the governor. Thus you have control." He said the universities have become a target "because politicians don't care much about universities. The Republicans have thrown universities as a bone to people because you can't get away with ending abortion, because you can't return to segregation. You can make those constituencies happy by giving them a university." Said Brown: "It's a form of class warfare."

Susan Lehrer, who coordinated the sexuality conference at New Paltz, said it served as an important lesson for her. "What we learned in the aftermath was that it wasn't the conference; it was the opportunity for the trustees and whoever else to begin to flex their conservative muscle and to just try and intimidate faculty and administrators.

"What also happened as a result of this conference and as a result of the subsequent actions is that people have begun to realize the nature of the threat, both to access in the university and to academic freedom, so it's also mobilized a lot of support. A public university isn't just something we can take for granted. We will actually have to defend that."

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