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APRIL 2003

Chancellor Matthew Goldstein at the Helm of CUNY
by Joan Baum, Ph.D.

On maps of old, dangerous or unknown territory suspected of harboring sea monsters was marked hic sunt dracones. Only those skilled enough to navigate the treacherous waters survived. In June 1999, Benno Schmidt, then Chairman of the Mayor’s Advisory task Force on CUNY, reported that The City University of New York was “An Institution Adrift.” Three months later, in the wake of the Schmidt blueprint for reform, Dr. Matthew Goldstein was appointed Chancellor. Now, four years later, with Dr. Schmidt having just been named Chairman of the CUNY Board of Trustees, Chancellor Goldstein can state that he has not only negotiated passage through some rough political and financial seas but that he has found secure mooring for the 20 colleges and graduate and professional schools that make up the nation’s most diverse public institution of higher education. With rigor, commitment, and wide support from all constituencies, and without compromising CUNY’s mission as an urban university, the Chancellor has tightened admissions and assessment criteria and turned a loose federation of often competing colleges into a unified three-tiered system of flagship programs that could serve as models for other public universities intent on piloting a similar course.

The turnaround is quite an accomplishment, considering that barely four years ago CUNY was said to be listing dangerously: enrollment and retention were imperiled, experienced faculty were retiring, and the press seemed unrelenting in its criticism. Now Chancellor Goldstein points to the success of initiatives that have helped CUNY “stay the course.” Enrollments went up 10.5 % and the average SAT scores of those entering the selective senior colleges shot up 80 points. In an address this past January at the Harvard Club on “fiscal challenges and new opportunities” at CUNY, the Chancellor reminded his audience that some years ago he had warned that “unless CUNY started to raise the bridge instead of lowering the river, our students would never learn how to swim.” He is obviously pleased that “the bridge is going up” and that students as well as faculty and administration “are much stronger swimmers than we were, much better able to handle the uncertain tides of a rapidly changing world.” A new assessment program “turned [the university] inside out,” and the new tier structure, with its commitment to articulation between the two- and four-year colleges, as well as the introduction of an executive compensation/management performance system are helping sustain a new “meritocracy.”

Confident about what Chairman Schmidt calls CUNY’s “revitalization,” the Chancellor is contemplating new ports of call, such as Governors Island, which he envisions as a site for an international think tank that would bring together prestigious CUNY faculty and leading scientists at neighboring institutions to do cutting-edge research on issues critical to the city and the surrounding region. The Chancellor also talks about a Journalism School, a School of Professional Studies (in conjunction with the Economic Development Corporation), more university-wide interdisciplinary programs, further collaboration with the New York City Department of Education, and continued enhancement up and down the line of “liberal learning.” It’s obvious that the Chancellor has more in mind than staying the course — he also intends to steer into unchartered waters.

Instinctively he draws his phrases and imagery not from nautical lore, however, but mathematical statistics, the field in which he earned a B.A. at The City College and a doctorate at the University of Connecticut, and in which he has published widely. A former president of Baruch College, of the CUNY Research Foundation, and of Adelphi University, Chancellor Goldstein talks of “large variance,” data and “new managerial systems.” While his background in both mathematics and higher education administration would seem to have prepared him for the fundraising campaigns and academic program reviews he faces continually, he says that heading up CUNY has been “the biggest challenge” he has ever faced. Other large universities don’t have the university’s extraordinary diversity, its vast number of low-income and immigrant students (“only in America”) and its increasing number of those who could have gone on to ivy league schools but who chose CUNY instead, some of whom, perhaps were attracted to the new university-wide Honors College. With 325 participants, out of 2,500 applicants, the Honors College, now in its third year, is expected to grow to 1,400-1,600. The Chancellor beams. Other successes ripple out for him, the Teacher Education programs, now reflected in the over 90% pass rate on certification exams, the CUNY-high schools partnerships, and the Teaching Fellows, which originated at CUNY in joint sponsorship with High Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. “No other university system is so closely linked with public high schools.”

“We’re serious,” the Chancellor says more than once about the university, which doesn’t mean, of course, that the Chancellor always is. Playful, full of anecdotes (“let me illustrate that point with a story”) and obviously enjoying his role at the helm, a company man, he nonetheless refers to himself as a “maverick.” He is also a lover of opera and art and an appreciator of intellectual quality. He likes “to be around very smart people helping to solve very complex problems,” and the “extraordinary faculty” at CUNY deliver. He doesn’t just mean the Nobelists who make the news, or even the research-oriented professors who teach at the Graduate School, where one third of the Ph.D programs are ranked nationally. He means teachers on all the campuses. Despite budget reductions this year, he has managed to hire 450 new full-timers.

The hour is late, the day cold and rainy, but he’s off in a minute to attend a poetry jam in The Bowery. “Chancellors have to bang heads,” he says, but they also need to listen quietly to new ideas. Vessels cannot always beat into the wind. Sometimes they reach their destinations best by simply yielding to the currents.#




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