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At CUNY, Snail-Pace Reform
By Heather Mac Donald
Matthew Goldstein, chancellor of the City University of New York, represented himself as a reformer when he began his tenure nearly two years ago. But some CUNY faculty worry about his leisurely timetable for change, especially since this year's election may mean a shift from a mayor — Rudy Giuliani — who supports higher standards to one who does not.
Professors who support higher standards fret that Goldstein is not riding the individual campuses hard enough. They feverishly collect signs of backsliding or passive resistance in their college administrations — the cessation of midyear academic dismissals here, the continuation of bilingual classes and pressure to retain students there.
Remember, the CUNY system is not one that supports reform; every political pressure, other than that from the mayor's office, militates for the status quo.
What Goldstein should be doing is browbeating college presidents to monitor their faculties more closely. Too many professors tolerate minimal effort from students out of a misplaced sense of noblesse oblige. Are teachers enforcing homework obligations? College presidents must make sure they are.
Often, faculty are ground down by students' entitlement mentality, bred by years of mediocre schooling and low expectations. For example, a Lehman College history professor reports incessant complaints from his students that the writings of Booker T. Washington and "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" are "too hard." Faculty who hold the line on college content and skills should be rewarded.
Goldstein has not sufficiently eased the perennial information blackout at CUNY headquarters. For example, the passing grade on a remedial reading test was lowered in December so more students could qualify. But CUNY's own trustees would not have known about it if a disgruntled student had not complained to the CUNY board and The New York Times that the score was still too high.
Furthermore, City Hall says it cannot get information from the administration about enrollment in SEEK, an affirmative-action program for the senior colleges.
In the chancellor's favor, he has begun devising performance contracts for individual schools and reportedly is reorienting the community colleges toward vocational training.
Many colleges see only lost tuition revenues in raised standards; Goldstein should figure out how to reward schools for dramatic actions.
Equally important is the chancellor's bully pulpit. Between now and the November mayoral election, he should not stop proclaiming the transformative effect of high expectations and the benefit to the city of a university system that refuses to excuse failure.
He must create such momentum for change that the next mayor won't dare to stand in the way.
Mac Donald is the author of "The Burden of Bad Ideas" and a contributing editor to City Journal.
©2001 New York Daily News
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