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CUNY Chooses Mediocrity


CUNY Chooses Mediocrity

October 8, 1999
EducationPre K-12
Urban PolicyNYC

Since the Schmidt task force on the City University of New York delivered its recommendations in June, public debate has centered on the thorny problem of remediation. But the mayoral task force’s most important finding concerned CUNY’s nonexistent top end, not its ample bottom end. It is there the battle lines over CUNY’s future are most sharply drawn.

CUNY is unique among large public university systems in not having a single college for students in the first or second quartile of academic achievement, measured by SAT scores and basic skills.

Students at Baruch, CUNY’s most selective school, fall into the 30th to 40th percentiles of SAT takers (meaning that 60% to 70% of American students score higher). From there, CUNY’s schools plummet down to absolute rock bottom.

With this narrow range of scores, CUNY students are either minimally qualified for college or not qualified at all, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The absence of a CUNY campus with a topnotch student body constitutes a gaping educational and cultural hole in New York. Flagship campuses elsewhere, such as the University of California at Berkeley, serve as intellectual lightning rods for their college systems. They motivate high school students to achieve. They attract the most gifted faculty from across the country. And they incubate ideas.

Without such beacons of excellence, New York is experiencing brain drain. Virtually no graduates of the city’s elite public high schools go to CUNY, most go upstate or out of state, stripping the city of homegrown talent that otherwise would develop ties to the local economy.

To counter this exodus and maybe even attract to CUNY top undergraduates from outside the city—currently a fanciful notion—the Schmidt task force recommended creating two flagship campuses for students with SATs of at least 1,200 and high grades. Surely, in a city as large as New York, there is room for excellence.

The answer from CUNY’s entrenched interests could not be clearer: Mediocrity is good enough for CUNY and New York.

A series of counterreports to the Schmidt task force from an overlapping set of CUNY defenders rejects the idea of a flagship campus as racist, antidemocratic and anti-poor.

The Friends of CUNY say the Schmidt report would turn CUNY into a “bastion of exclusion.” The Faculty Senate questions the very possibility of “objective” standards of achievement—thus demonstrating its postmodern credentials, if not its academic good faith.

Several counterreports posit the CUNY Graduate Center as a flagship campus—a ludicrously irrelevant response to the need for an elite undergraduate institution.

The thinking that sees excellence as an impediment to access is New York’s greatest educational failing. Contrary to CUNY’s kneejerk defense squad, excellence adds to a system, rather than detracting from it.

Moreover, CUNY’s history belies the racist assumption that minorities and the poor will never gain entry to the best campuses. City College for decades drew high-achieving poor New Yorkers.

Creating a CUNY campus for the pinnacle of the city’s academic talent is a policy of inclusion, not exclusion, that could pull the rest of the system up with it. Chancellor Matthew Goldstein should give it his highest attention.