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The Old College Try


The stage was set for what the faculty still calls "the crisis at Yale." Soon after his arrival, Schmidt learned that much of Yale's physical infrastructure was failing: Buildings were sinking into the ground, and entire science facilities needed to be built from scratch. In response, he became a fund-raising powerhouse, building Yale's endowment at record speed even after the '87 market crash -- but he refused to dig into the endowment to pay for the capital improvements. Instead, he made national headlines by proposing 15 percent cuts to the arts-and-sciences faculty. After a mass faculty outcry in February 1992, Schmidt's cuts dwindled to about 5 percent. Three months later, he resigned. "If things are so bad," he sniffed on his way out of New Haven, "I wonder why alumni support is up 50 percent this year."

When Schmidt announced he would join forces with Chris Whittle -- the man who brought corporate sponsorship inside the classroom with the "Channel One" TV teaching aid -- then-American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker said, "I think that Chris has gained some credibility here, and that Benno has lost some." Since then, the Edison Project has set up just 79 schools around the country, not nearly as many as Schmidt had planned, and the project has been losing about $20 million a year. But Edison continues to get investment from both J.P. Morgan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen -- and Schmidt now stands to profit from a planned IPO.

Giuliani's invitation to study CUNY represented an airlift out of the Whittle wilderness. If Schmidt can mutate CUNY into a more competitive university, then perhaps he can set the template for reforming all public higher education.

Tough love -- or outsize ambition, depending on your view of the impasse -- radiates from every page of the Schmidt report. It concludes that CUNY is "in a spiral of decline," that "doubts fester about the value of a CUNY degree," and that the university should bring some class into the field by turning a few of its colleges into selective "flagship" schools. Others, however, said CUNY already has flagship schools -- Hunter, Baruch, and Queens College, which are raising standards and removing remedial classes from their curricula. They noted that CUNY still sends more students to nationally ranked graduate programs than all the Ivies combined. Above all, the faculty reaction was hurt feelings -- the sense that Schmidt had deepened the university's wounds more than healed them.

"We've been working under some pretty harsh conditions," says Michael Kahan, a political-science professor from Brooklyn College. "Our relative income has dropped somewhere between 25 and 40 percent comparable to others in the last fifteen years, depending on where you were in the salary scale. In the whole decade of the nineties, we got raises of about 13 percent. Our collegial environment has fallen because of the high ratio of part-time faculty. And then to come in and say, 'You guys are doing a rotten job'?"

Getting a credentialed educator to force change at CUNY without asking for more money took the mayor longer than his campaigns against most other New York institutions. In 1997, chancellor W. Ann Reynolds decamped to the University of Alabama after she unsuccessfully fought the mayor's plan to make all of CUNY's students on public assistance quit school and join his workfare program. "It's no fun to take a subway all the way to Kingsborough Community College and stand in line all day for a class," Reynolds now says from her perch in Birmingham. "These aren't deadbeats. These are students for whom CUNY is the only higher-education option."

Since Reynolds left, Giuliani has made a habit of holding the city's $120 million share of CUNY's budget hostage unless he has his way. In last January's State of the City address, he mentioned that fewer than 8 percent of all CUNY students graduate after four years -- a rate that is actually roughly on a par with those of other large urban universities -- and said, "That's a system we'd blow up, right? If we had the guts." Like Giuliani, Schmidt likes to use the graduation rate as a straw man. "At every little gathering I've gone to in the last year," he tells me, "I've said to people -- often business leaders -- 'What do you think of the fact that the four-year graduation rate at CUNY senior colleges is about 7 percent?' Their jaws drop. Then I say, 'What do you think of the fact that the six-year graduation rate's about 30 percent?' Their jaws drop again. And then I say, 'Well, you know, if you look at Chicago State or something, it's about the same.' And they say, 'That doesn't matter! This is CUNY! This is New York City! This should be the best public-university system!' "

Looks good on paper. But more than half of CUNY's undergraduates work at least a part-time job. More than 40 percent are over 24 years old. And one out of every four has children to support. "Of the 150 receiving degrees today, you hold only 191 jobs," Jimmy Breslin cheekily told last spring's graduating class of CUNY's baccalaureate program at Borough of Manhattan Community College. "That is less than two jobs per student. What right, then, do you have to take five and six years and more to get a degree?"

In what might be the most far-reaching new initiative, CUNY's trustees are now working to remove remedial classes from all of the four-year baccalaureate programs. Under the plan, students who don't meet certain SAT scores or pass a second skills test will be barred from the eleven baccalaureate programs until they catch up at the community colleges. If the policy gets past the Regents this month, some CUNY advocates believe it will sound the death knell for open admissions. "Nobody should be denied a right to get an education at any of our CUNY campuses," said C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president, at an activist teach-in in July. The policy is being fought in court by several groups, including the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Asian American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Jewish Congress, and the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Ideologically, Schmidt equates remediation to social promotion in the grade schools -- a cure that's turned into a disease. He views remediation's exile from four-year colleges as both a practical and a philosophical imperative: He believes CUNY can speed up remediation for students once it's separated, and his report also wants to give students "educational vouchers" to seek remediation in the private sector. A foreign-speaking student, for instance, could take English either at CUNY or at, say, Berlitz; a student who needs sharper math skills could take a class at Sylvan Learning Center.

But while Sylvan or Berlitz will certainly make a profit off of this, Schmidt's report never says who should pay the bill. "We called for there to be a separate source of public funding, but we didn't think we knew enough about the possible budgetary sources, so we left it at that," Schmidt

As financing schemes go, it's fuzzy at best -- and it actually contains some echoes of the setup of the Edison Project. At Edison, Schmidt takes the worst-performing school in a given district, reforms it, and makes a profit from funds from local government. If, by chance, the per-pupil government outlay for the school isn't enough to put Edison in the black, Edison turns to charitable contributions. It's an astonishing arrangement: Donors give money to save their school, but Edison makes money from the deal.

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