A Tale of Two CUNY’s

John Garvey

At the beginning of this year, The Atlantic posted a long article by LynNell Hancock and Meredith Kolodner, two veteran education reporters, on the ways in which admissions decisions at CUNY were resulting in patterns of excluding high-achieving black and Hispanic graduates of the city’s public high schools from the system’s most selective baccalaureate colleges. The article specifically focused attention on an apparent over-reliance on SAT scores and an under-valuation of grade point averages and class rank in admissions decisions. The article was a follow-up to a 2012 report issued by the Community Service Society (CSS) that had examined the impact of CUNY’s explosive growth in applications since the 2008 economic crisis on black and Hispanic admissions.

On the same day that the article was published, the University’s Vice Chancellor for University Relations sent off a message to the magazine’s editor and posted it front and center on the University’s web page to demand that the article be withdrawn and corrections made. He charged that the article had numerous inaccuracies — mostly regarding a high school graduate’s actual experiences with CUNY’s admissions process — and that it had failed to take into account additional data that University staff had provided the authors as they worked on the article. (The Chronicle published a brief account of the controversy on January 14th).

As someone who worked at CUNY’s Central Office for twenty years in a variety of positions, I had long been aware of the trends that the article summarized. And truth be known, there were more than a few administrators and faculty members at the University who knew the same and expressed their discontents with those trends. But, their protests were usually muffled ones. In any case, the facts in The Atlantic article weren’t a surprise to many. But the Vice Chancellor’s reaction was startling.

Why was the Vice Chancellor so quick to condemn the article? The answer may well lie in CUNY’s recent history. Matthew Goldstein became CUNY’s Chancellor in 1999 after what might be described as the Giuliani Wars during which the then mayor consistently ridiculed the University and demanded that it yield to his demands for change. Goldstein presented himself and was quickly accepted as the “man of the hour.” At the centerpiece of his strategy was restoration — CUNY would be restored to the grand institution it once had been — before open admissions. Goldstein had an explicit and frequently articulated strategy — differentiate the system. There would be some colleges for those deemed to be the best; some others for the pretty good; and still others for those barely ready or not ready at all. After a bit of time, the Macaulay Honors College was added into the mix as the college for the best of all, determined all but completely by SAT scores.

Goldstein soon announced grand, and eventually quite successful, ambitions for the raising of large amounts of money to support University initiatives. He was playing to a social bloc, composed of prospective big donors, including wealthy CUNY alumni who yearned nostalgically for the City College of yesteryear, and the editorial writers of the city’s tabloid press that greeted every announcement of a rise in SAT scores at the University with hymns of praise. It is perhaps worth noting that a similar bloc has crystallized around a goal-line defense of the current use of the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test to determine admission to the city’s specialized high schools.

During his long tenure as CUNY’s Chancellor, Goldstein was quite successful in introducing new programs at the University — programs that often enough, in the case of programs such as CUNY START and ASAP that focused on community college students, have made an enormous positive difference. But the University’s core realities continued to be what they had been — a dull bureaucracy at the Center and pervasive mediocrity at the colleges.

The new programs allowed the University to obscure what was going on because of its insistent emphasis on raising SAT score admissions requirements at the baccalaureate level — specifically, the increasing exclusion of high achieving students from the system’s most selective, and most successful, colleges. Let’s be clear — the University has not adopted, as a matter of policy, an admissions process designed to exclude black and Latino students from its more selective institutions. Indeed, there are probably a good number of students, considered to be white or Asian, who are also being turned away.

To the surprise of most of those who read major publications, accustomed to short corrections notices or advice that the publication would be happy to publish a letter to the editor, The Atlantic all but immediately responded by significantly revising parts of the article and providing convoluted explanations for why they had done so. The next week and a half witnessed the posting on the University’s web page of three additional letters from the Vice Chancellor insisting that the changes already made by the magazine were insufficient. By the end, apparently even The Atlantic editors had concluded that his complaints would not be satisfied by any number of responses and gave it up for a lost cause.

The University also re-posted an essay by Daniel Luzer from The Washington Monthly wherein he endorsed much of the Vice Chancellor’s argument and took the authors to task. However, he also wrote: “Even after The Atlantic issued its correction, it still seems the central point of the CUNY story was correct.” But perhaps the most startling sentence in Luzer’s essay was this one: “It was, as Hershenson put it to me, like the Rolling Stone rape story all over again.” In other words, Hershenson had charged that Hancock and Kolodner were guilty of serious violations of journalistic ethics and practice. (Jay Hershenson is the Vice Chancellor for University Relations).

When it comes to personal stories, journalists are, at the end, dependent on recollections and interpretations that may not be complete — in this instance because the young people involved or, for that matter, their adult advisors, may not have completely understood how the University’s admissions process actually worked. Their reliability is another matter. Nothing suggests that the young man at the center of the story or any other of the numerous young people the authors interviewed, over a two-year period, said anything other than “the truth and nothing but the truth.” In addition to students, the authors spoke to parents and college counselors and they received consistent confirmation of students’ accounts. Kenneth Rosario, the young man highlighted in the article, was not a sole source; he was a representative of many more — young people who tried hard, did well and were disappointed for no good reason when they applied to CUNY.

At the end, there was one omission by the authors; they did not mention that Kenneth Rosariso was accepted by Brooklyn College and City College. And there was a really stupid error by editors at The Atlantic regarding their first headline and a subsequent sub-head. So minor corrections were in order. However, the point of the article was that University policies had real and significant impacts on the lives and futures of real individuals. And that too remains a “central point of the CUNY story”. But those simple facts were obscured by a relentless campaign to discredit the whole article by making a proverbial mountain out of a couple of molehills. In other words, the central point of The Atlantic article was the right one — in spite of the efforts by CUNY to obscure it.

Why was CUNY’s leadership so determined to do so? In the late 1990’s, CUNY weathered the blows from Giuliani as well as it could but it never directly challenged the mayor or his tabloid cheerleaders. Then, the political leadership of the city and state were in the hands of people who were not interested in hearing about the University opening doors to poor and working class students; they wanted to hear about “excellence”. But, then, as now, the University had a tough road to travel on. It needed to maintain and sustain its support from elected legislators at the city and state levels, most of whom were, for various reasons, concerned about open access issues. So, the University adopted “access and excellence” as a public relations strategy to meet the demands of two masters.

During two previous mayoral tyrannies (Giuliani and Bloomberg) and distant governorships (Pataki and Spitzer/Patterson), there was not much need for the University to worry about the worsening inequality issue. But now with deBlasio as Mayor (elected on the basis of a commitment to address inequality in the city — as exemplified in the notion of “two cities”), CUNY cannot afford the truth — that it too is contributing to the reproduction and worsening of inequality; that there are “two CUNY’s”. And that, I believe, is why CUNY’s Vice Chancellor attacked LynNell Hancock, Meredith Kolodner and Kenneth Rosario, the young high school graduate.

This tale too deserves remembering and telling.

John Garvey was the Dean of the Teacher Academy & Collaborative Programs at CUNY’s Office of Academic Affairs until October of 2008.


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