The Challenge of Urban Higher Education

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Matthew Goldstein
Title: “The Challenge of Urban Higher Education”
VTR: 9/22/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And our subject today, as it is in serious discussions about the future everywhere in our nation these days is about education. Sometimes about educating our youngest children, sometimes, too, as here today, about higher education, particularly about public higher education in our great urban centers. The greatest, of course, New York with its historic City University. And my guest today, Matthew Goldstein is actually a sophomore now as Chancellor of CUNY, the City University of New York and I trust it is not inappropriate to ask what grade point average he feels he and this great system of higher education can lay claim to. What do you say about that, Chancellor?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I think we’re a good B and climbing. It’s been a very, very interesting year of tremendous reform. And I think if you look at the things that we have been able to accomplish, in a very, very difficult environment, I feel very satisfied that we’re on our way to becoming, if not suma cum laude, maybe magna cum laude.

HEFFNER: Why do you say a very difficult setting?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, you know, Richard, I have a glib characterization of City University that I’ve used many times, but I think it’s such an accurate portrayal, and it indicates the kinds of challenges that we face at City University. When asked I say, “pick any index of performance, CUNY maximizes the variance on that index”. I remember when I was privileged to lead Baruch College … starting in 1991 as President, and Baruch is one of our stellar four year baccalaureate, masters and doctoral institutions within the City University system. Almost the day when I was appointed, Harry Markowitz won the Nobel Prize for his seminal work in portfolio theory. The Nobel Prize in economics. So it showed that we had faculty of extraordinary stature and certainly can compete with the finest minds any place in University life. But on the other end we had faculty that I often reflected how they would come this particular college because they just didn’t seem to fit in with the overall mission. And the same thing about students. We have students that we sent to the finest graduate schools, the best medical schools, the best law schools, and we have other students at City University that are very poorly prepared for university life. And I think it’s that great variance that characterizes the City University of New York that makes it a very, very difficult environment to get your arms around. Difficult, challenging, but also delicious.

HEFFNER: You seem to be having, may I say, a lot of fun working at the challenge.

GOLDSTEIN: I deeply believe in the mission of this university. I get up every morning and feel like the day that I will spend, and it’s a very long day, is going to lead to the improvement in the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of young people. And that really drives me. This is an institution that gives opportunities to the children of our graduates, that our graduates didn’t have. And so it goes. And just being able to participate in that flow of upward mobility, to giving students an opportunity that they will not have if CUNY were not available, is something that I deeply feel privileged to be part of.

HEFFNER: Is that the definition of what you mean when you talk about “mission”?

GOLDSTEIN: I think CUNY has always had a mission of keeping its doors open to students who want to study. And we could get into how that mission has been interpreted and massaged over the years, because it’s really changed in many ways from what it was when I was a student to what it was in the 1970s and 80s and where it is today under this Board, and my administration. But I think that CUNY overall has been a place for first generation of students in families that go to a higher education institution. It certainly was the case when I was there. It’s very much the case today with our large influx of immigrants from all over the world, and it is a place that students come to change their lives.

HEFFNER: Now, are we talking about something that is sui generis, or could I point to other large urban centers in this country and say, “here’s a challenge, we face it in New York, they’re facing it elsewhere”.

GOLDSTEIN: I think that what we’re seeing in New York is, is transferable to other large states. California, Texas, Florida … in their state university systems are facing similar kinds of problems and challenges that New York does, but what makes New York different is that it’s always on the forefront of these changes. Somehow the waves hit at City University before they hit elsewhere. And we become a laboratory for innovation and the kinds of modalities of instruction that others will eventually see, but they see after we see it.

HEFFNER: Well, one of your objectives, I know, is to create, in the City University a kind of stellar elite center college, or several such locations. Could you elaborate on that?

GOLDSTEIN: I wouldn’t … there are people who believe that I am trying to re-shape the university so that we will have flagship campuses. Probably the phrase that …

HEFFNER: Is that a misunderstanding?

GOLDSTEIN: I think it is a misunderstanding. Let me see if I can clarify for you the way that I think that we ought to proceed. I talk about creating a flagship environment at the City University of New York. Remember this is a university with 10 campuses, highly … a highly compact group of 20 campuses. Indeed no campus is more than an hour to an hour and fifteen by public transportation …

HEFFNER: I’ve seen you make that point, I’ve read that.

GOLDSTEIN: it is

HEFFNER: Fascinating.

GOLDSTEIN: restricted to the five … boroughs. And what I think we really need to do is to create a flagship environment at the City University of New York by building on programs, incrementally, over time, if properly capitalized, if properly given the kinds of resources these programs need, faculty resources, academic support services, equipment, instrumentation, libraries, computer labs, and so forth. If we can provide that kind of support and do it among a group of campuses that will support a flagship status for a given program, and do this incrementally across all of the programs that we have at City University or a dominant number of programs across the university, at the end of the day, at the end of this process we will have a collection of academic programs that would emulate the great flagship campuses of the major universities around these United States. And we could do that at City University because of the close geographic proximity. And if not using the geographic proximity capitalizing on some of the technological innovations that we’re seeing today. That’s what I really want to create at City University. Let me give you an example. We have a number of physics programs that are quite good at City University. But probably the most prominent physics program that we have is at City College. What I would like to see us do is to build up our very strong physics program at City University, anchor it at City College, but have it participated in with some of the other campuses that have strength in physics as well, and coordinate the hiring of faculty informed by what each of those campuses are doing. So we’ll have great strength in physics, participating in a number of different campuses and we will have that flagship kind of status. And use that kind of model, incrementally, across the University. A very, very different model, not emulated anywhere, I think, in these United States because of our unique geography. And I think we need to capitalize on that and do it well.

HEFFNER: My grandson, ten years from now, a New Yorker, what will be his lot if he applies to the City University? How do you see him as one interested, let’s say, in the social sciences and history.
GOLDSTEIN: Your grandson in ten years will find a university inviting. A university that will guarantee to your grandson that if he studies at this university, he will have a valued degree. He will be studying with some of the most promising, energetic and highly regarded scholars that we will be able to attract to the this university. He will study on campuses or on a campus that will have facilities that are modern and inviting. And he will study with a faculty that will be very supportive. Those are the kinds of things that I want to push this university to. At the end of that process, when your grandson leaves with his academic diploma, that degree will be a valued degree by employers or by graduate schools or professional schools that he may wish to go to afterwards.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask ;you a little bit about the different campuses and where he will actually take classes, to get a better sense of what it is that you mean of centers of excellence.

GOLDSTEIN: Your grandson probably will want to study on one of our campuses, whatever that campus is be it Brooklyn College or City College. Maybe a two year institution, I don’t know what his interest is or how ready he might be for university life. But the large, the dominant experience that he will have will be on one particular campus. But, the City of New York, to me, to the way that I look at the world, should be the great urban campus that associates with each of our campuses. The great cultural institutions. The great museums, the concert halls, the galleries, the libraries. These are the things that we want to bring into City University as a partner. And to really expand the experience that your grandson will have. And also if he sees a particular professor on one of our campuses that he wishes to study with, that particular professor should be available for him in a way because I want to integrate this university and really have each of these campuses informing each other what they’re doing and inviting students from elsewhere to study at this as well.

HEFFNER: Of course, I’m aware of the fact that when you began as Chancellor and you, I guess it was, one of your first comments or in one of the first interviews, you said, “I am passionate about educational technology”. And I wonder whether you see this flexibility, mobility as something more than taking the subway from one borough to another. And something that is in large part going to be told by technology.

GOLDSTEIN: I think technology will play a much more prominent component in the pedagogical life of our students at City University. It certainly will do that as well throughout University communities both here in the United States and elsewhere. There are really two different phenomena that I think we need to distinguish in the use of technology. One is what people refer to as “distance learning”. A Matthew Goldstein is seated at home and wants to take a course at a given university, but for whatever reason is not interested in physically being on that university, but wants to study at that university. And technology today is allowing hundreds and hundreds of thousands of students, if not millions of students world-wide, to do exactly that. And we will do that as well. But one of the things that I’m more interested in is what I refer to as an asynchronous learning environment. Of actually bringing technology into the classroom to reform the way that students learn. I want to really break the boundaries that separate that little rectangle or that little square that we call a classroom that is highly insular from the rest of the world, break those boundaries that define that rectangle, or that square, and open up much greater opportunities to learning. And you do that through technology. Envision a student seated at a desk with a laptop computer in front of him or her or, a monitor in front of him or her and a faculty member standing at the front of the class with a smart podium, able to interact with the students. And challenge one student more than challenging another student. Remember in any particular classroom there is variation in ability. And variation in curiosity. And we need to maximize the potential of students that can do more, but we, at the same time, need to be able to pull back and repeat certain kinds of things that a student wouldn’t be able to grasp. You can do that using technology. And that’s why I call it an asynchronous learning environment, that people are sort of moving towards a certain set of objectives that a faculty member expects of the students, but at different speeds and at different kinds of material.

HEFFNER: You use the magic words, “that a faculty member expects”. I’ve been around long enough, I’m an old academic and I know that we academics have not, over the years, been very willing subjects of technological change, we haven’t very quickly made use of it. We didn’t make use of film back in the twenties and thirties when there were those who thought film was going to be a wonderful aid in campus life, in the classroom. We didn’t make use of television as we were supposed to in the fifties and the sixties and the seventies and the eighties and even in the last decade. Why do you believe, where do you get that optimism to believe that we’ll do it.

GOLDSTEIN: I think there is a big difference. I mean I grew up … I didn’t have a television set in my household until I was age ten. And I really wasn’t one to watch a lot of TV except me sports and news. But I never learned much from TV. There’s a very, very different phenomenon going on now … the Internet is truly transforming how people relate to greater communities. And that Internet is inculcated now with young people at a very, very early age. They relate to it as we related to maybe the radio, or TV or a library. That is very much a part of their lives, that’s how they are developing their, their curiosity and cognitive skills. So I think as, as students progress through schools, the use of technology is very, very much a part of their regular experience.

HEFFNER: I really was so much talking about the students, who I know they adapt …

GOLDSTEIN: Well … but …

HEFFNER: … I’m talking about the faculty.

GOLDSTEIN: The faculty … it’s very interesting … when I was at Adelphi University, I guess it was two years ago, I created … I wanted to look at this small University and say, “how do we position this university in a highly competitive market?”
And it was very clear to me that the way to do it was to make Adelphi a, a technological hub in the area that it lived in. And I tried to develop … I knew the only way that we could do this is to get faculty to buy into it, to your point. And I knew that was the real impediment. It wasn’t about wiring buildings, it wasn’t about purchasing equipment. That’s easy. It wasn’t, you know, about developing software. That’s easy. The hard thing was to change the culture of how faculty relate to how they deliver instruction. And much to my surprise, after much cajoling, we were able to get in a number of senior faculty to go through a faculty development effort. And they really got turned on and they became the apostles. They became the great advocates, the great champions. It really has to start with faculty buying in and I’ve seen it over and over again. Great resistance … “this is not for me”, “it’s a lot of nonsense, I could do it much better”. But once they get involved in it they get very, very hooked on it. And we’re seeing, throughout City University now which is a much, much larger and much more complex institution, faculty members by the dozens, if not now hundreds, really starting to develop web-based curricula, ways of communicating with their students over the Internet and our networks. And I see it happening more and more and more and as new faculty are hired, a younger faculty who developed their own interests in the world through technology, it’s to them a natural. You don’t have to convince them, they’re doing it themselves. So I think it’s a matter of time. There will be some bumps. But I think it’s going to happen. It’s not going to happen with ever faculty member, and it will happen in different ways with different disciplines. But it’s going to happen throughout higher education.

HEFFNER: To what extent is the fact that CUNY is a public institution, to what extent does this, perhaps, make somewhat more difficult your mission in these terms?

GOLDSTEIN: I don’t think it really makes a difference whether it’s a public or private university. I, you know, I think the blurring is, is happening in much greater intensity today between private and public universities. I often say to people, if an alien landed in California and landed at Berkeley and then went back to the mother ship and then the next day landed at Stanford, and someone were to say “which one is the public and which one is the private”. They’d have a very, very difficult time differentiating. So I don’t think the public/private issue is at all differentiating whether you could do this in one kind of institution or another. There are two major challenges. One is the economic model that has to be developed to do this. And two is the faculty buying “in”. And a very serious effort by the Administration to develop the resources, to develop the faculty development program so that faculty who are unsure, frightened of the technology, antagonistic perhaps towards the technology can buy into the process, and I think it’s going to happen.

HEFFNER: Well, we just have a few minutes left. There is a word we really haven’t … money. Dollars. How do they figure into your view of the City University ten years from now.

GOLDSTEIN: Our biggest challenge. At the end of the day, we were just fortunate recently for the State Board of Regents to approve a Master Plan for the City University of New York. Very bold, I would say imaginative and really bringing CUNY not only in the mainstream, but really ahead of the curve in much of what higher education is capable of doing. It’s going to take money and we’re going to have to make up for a lot of time in City University, this is not a well funded university, both in full-time faculty, which have been diminished over the past couple of decades. Instrumentation, equipment, academic support services, all of this is going to have to happen in order for much of what we are discussing here to take place.

HEFFNER: And the prospect?

GOLDSTEIN: I’m an optimist.

HEFFNER: That’s clear.

GOLDSTEIN: I’m an optimist, I think that you really have to see capacities and capabilities and go out and deliver ‘em.

HEFFNER: The other theme, of course, and it’s not a dirty little secret, it’s very real and that has to do with your relationship with the students who come to you for the most part the product of New York City public schools. What’s the way in which you’re meeting that challenge of their preparation?

GOLDSTEIN: The students are getting better and better. In part because the
New York State Board of Regents has, over the past several years, with the leadership of Commission Rick Mills and Chancellor Carl Hayden and the rest of the Regents in the State Education Department demanded changed in our schools throughout New York State. And we are seeing, at the city University a … the results of those reforms. On standards, on accountability, on ensuring that all students now must go through high school and take a real college preparatory curriculum. So I think some of the problems that we’ve experienced in the past few decades of having too many students coming to City University really not prepared for legitimate college level work, to be self-correcting. And I’m seeing it and it will continue.

HEFFNER: Mr. Chancellor I don’t envy you, in a sense the challenge before you. But I know that you bring to it a kind of a you said “optimism” before and a kind of hard working belief in this incredible institution that you head and I’m so grateful to you for joining me on The Open Mind to share your thinking about the future.

GOLDSTEIN: Thank you, it was a pleasure.
HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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