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The Old College Try

Blue blood Benno Schmidt shook up Yale and struggled with the Edison Project, the for-profit school venture. CUNY is his third try at reforming American education. Will his tough-love standards save it or destroy it?


It takes about an hour and a half in the City Council's line of fire for Benno C. Schmidt Jr. to be called a racist -- and by then, there's an air of inevitability to it. The confrontation has been building for more than a year: When the mayor first recruited Schmidt in 1998 to look for ways to revamp the long-embattled and much-maligned City University of New York, leaders of the council -- many of whom are staunch CUNY supporters -- almost immediately pegged Schmidt's mayoral task force as a pro-privatization, anti-open-admissions cabal, bent on perverting CUNY's sacred mission as New York's higher educator of last resort. And so, on this sunny Monday morning in June, at the first public hearing on Schmidt's final report on CUNY, the stocky, broad-shouldered former president of Yale University sits dourly in City Hall's committee chamber with CUNY chairman Herman Badillo by his side, ready for a fight.

Council members take their time chipping away at Schmidt's report: They say it's too negative, starting with the title, An Institution Adrift; that it unfairly compares CUNY test scores to more selective schools; that it soft-pedals the budget cuts that have crippled the university. But the moment finally arrives when Harlem council member Bill Perkins takes the floor. "There are too many things in this report that are offensive for me to ignore," he says. "Perhaps most outrageous are the racist stereotypes and innuendos -- "

Badillo -- for all his years of bluster about CUNY's shortcomings -- remains silent. Schmidt is on his own. "There's none of that in this report," Schmidt says. "What's offensive is for you to suggest . . ."

"Let me read from the report!" Perkins shouts. " 'We've found that being Asian or white was often associated with strong performance, while being black or Hispanic was often associated with weak performance.' And then you go on to characterize the civil-rights movement, which resulted in CUNY's open-admissions policy, as 'policy by riot.' Now, I guess for you that's just witty?"

"You're wrong about that," Schmidt says.

"It's in the report! Explain why that language is in the report!"

Incredibly, things get worse. Helen Marshall, the higher-education-committee chair, refers to the report as "ethnic cleansing." Schmidt throws up his hands and cries, "Give me a break!"

Time and again, politics upstages pedagogy at CUNY. Ideology -- the war over the underclass that CUNY has served for more than a century -- invariably keeps the debate away from the students and the way they're educated. A standoff -- between those who believe public colleges should raise the bar to compete with private colleges and those who believe the university shouldn't alienate students failed by the public schools -- has polarized the place.

"Our relative income has dropped between 25 and 40 percent in the last fifteen years," says Michael Kahan, a political-science professor. "Then to come in and say, 'You guys are doing a rotten job'?"

But next Monday, only six months into Schmidt's tenure as vice-chair of CUNY's board of trustees, the State Board of Regents is voting on a policy that could change the university forever -- a policy sanctified by Benno Schmidt. The immovable object has met the irresistible force.

He doesn't mean to be incendiary; he never does. But Benno Schmidt is still new to the grave and sensitive identity politics of CUNY -- and CUNY is new to the unself-consciously strident Benno Schmidt. When he isn't being called a racist, his voice is tempered by breathy chuckles -- a lofty tic that kicks in when he's venting about the people he enrages. "I was kind of surprised," he admits a few weeks after the City Hall episode. "But I'm not personally angry about them. I'm angry about the issue. There is a test-score gap. Black and Hispanic students, on the whole, do score lower than white students. And it's very clear why that's so. Their schools are worse."

In the past three decades, a stigma has developed around CUNY: Where the academic culture used to be democratic and triumphant, now it is chaotic and dispirited. Politicians, most notably the mayor and the governor, have called a CUNY degree worthless, strangled the university's funding, and tried to whittle away at open admissions. In this bombed-out landscape, Schmidt positions himself as above the fray: a no-nonsense reformer, untainted by CUNY's troubled past. But he brings his own baggage with him. Since his time at Yale in the late eighties and early nineties -- when he seized control of two different schools, declared a budget crisis, and triggered a faculty rebellion -- Schmidt has worn his ambition on his sleeve. And as the architect of CUNY's makeover, Schmidt also not insignificantly stands to profit from his new mission. By encouraging such concepts as vouchers and selective excellence, Schmidt could both vindicate his own conservative agenda and indirectly justify the work of the Edison Project, the struggling for-profit education venture he has worked on since 1992.

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