Matthew Goldstein

On Urban Higher Education

VTR Date: June 26, 2007

CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein discusses the challenge of teaching New York City.


GUEST: Matthew Goldstein
VTR: 06/26/07

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And my guest today is Matthew Goldstein, Chancellor of the City University of New York and recently the recipient of the Carnegie Corporation’s distinguished Academic Leadership Award for presiding over CUNY’s 23 campuses with their 200,000 degree candidates and hundreds of thousands of non-degree students.

As Carnegie Corporation President Vartan Gregorian notes: “The Academic Leadership Award celebrates excellence…It builds on the foundation’s long tradition of developing and recognizing the importance of leadership in American institutions of higher education. Clearly Matthew Goldstein’s accomplishments prove that excellence in leadership is much more than effective management.”

So, let me ask my guest where he feels leadership must now most be exhibited in urban education … what are the greatest challenges he faces these days. Chancellor?

GOLDSTEIN: I think the challenges are more profound than they have been in many years.

HEFFNER: Why so?

GOLDSTEIN: I would say that we are … we’re facing a national security problem in the United States. It sounds somewhat elliptical and a little, little extreme … but as I travel around the world, as I read what other countries are doing … the kinds of investments that they’re making … I am saddened and fearful that unless we wake up to the what we need to do as a country … to get more young people interested, in an earlier time in their life, in being able to comprehend and embrace very basic principles of scientific literacy, that we are going to be held behind in a highly competitive economy that is going to be unforgiving of people who do not have the kinds of skills required in an innovation economy.

HEFFNER: You say “unforgiving”. Explain your use of this word.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, unforgiving in the sense that we are no longer going to be able, because of the inability for us to market our services and compete effectively for products; unable to provide the kinds of things that we need in this country … desperately need … better health care for our citizens … better housing for our citizens.

You know we have been the wealthiest country in the world and it was largely a result of having this vast expanse, called the United States of America with rich resources, land … the ability to harness the energy and creativity that this land provided. That’s going to change very, very rapidly as we progress through the 21st century.

It’s going to be an economy that is largely going to be driven by innovation, which means that the people participating are not going to necessarily be agrarian or in the, in the traditions of the industrial megastates. It’s largely going to be those countries that are able to provide fast, effective communication. Sophisticated products. Sophisticated ways of delivering services and that level of sophistication is just going to require a much more educated citizenry.

HEFFNER: But you know, when you … when you express your, your fears … almost apocalyptic fears, I wondered to myself, “Hey … you know, I know what had happened to the City University. I know what had happened to a higher education in this city and I know the degree to which you have turned it around.” What are the fears then? I mean yours is …


HEFFNER: … a success story.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. We, we … I, I use a metaphor from mathematics, which is my background … we changed the topology of the City University of New York. We, we started with very, very fundamental policy changes. We addressed regulatory issues. We got at the very core of what impeded this university from doing the things that it was most capable of doing.

I am not a doomsayer. I think this country still has the great potential for doing … to be, being a leader in the world economy.

What I worry about is two basic things. One, when you go and look at who is studying in the laboratories of our most elite universities, our state universities, there are very few American students sitting in those labs and doing that very sophisticated work. Many of them are from foreign countries. Many of them are going to leave and go back to their countries and they’re going to bring that intellectual capital that we invested in … not to our advantage, but I think to our competitors.

The second is I see a great disjunction in this country among peoples of African American and Latino origin. That are just not being as successful in the Academy as we would like to see. And these … these, these young people … many of whom, many of whom … and I’ve met so many at the City University of New York are so hungry for a first class education. Are curious, are creative, are bold. But it is so difficult to get large numbers of these students really engaged. In part because they’re schooling was sub-par from many of the countries that they came from. The schools that they came to in the Untied States and some urban areas are just not up-to-snuff, the teachers are not the best that we can deploy in the classroom, the instrumentation for their laboratory work is not what it should be, so that they come to the university with a terrible disadvantage. They don’t have the supports that many of us have had.

Now I grew up relatively poor. But I had the supports of family and friends and communities. I’m not sure if many of these young people have that today. And I think we, as educators, when you talk about leadership … we as educators first and foremost have to be able to understand the problem, be very, very clear what the problem is, have the courage to speak about the problem and then use the best kind of experience and the best people that we can accumulate around us to help solve the problem.

HEFFNER: I’m interested in your use of the word “courage”. Does that mean you have to be … one has to be bold enough to say “We need more dollars?”.

GOLDSTEIN: I think that … yes … that that is certainly one component of it. I have never seen a great leader that did not have courage. Courage means being able to stand up and say what you really believe and be prepared to take the consequences, but to speak clearly and to speak honestly.

You know, Albert Einstein, one of my great heroes, when he was a young man during this, this period of 1905 … his … anis meralpus … his, his remarkable year. He took on orthodoxy that people of extraordinary accomplishments around that time were afraid to go to. So not only did he have a great mind, but he also had the courage to stand up and say, “You know, Newton was just a little off base here.”

You know everybody celebrated Newton, Newton was one of the giants, and still is one of the giants in the history of science. But when he looked about … you know, that time is absolute and space is absolute … got it wrong. So it took somebody with great courage, a belief in themselves, but also to stand up in the market of ideas and say, “This is what I believe, this is the way I think we ought to proceed.”

It’s the same thing in educational leadership, it is the same thing in corporate leadership, it is the same thing in political leadership. We have to surround ourselves with people that have ideas, that shape those ideas through thinking by themselves, but also around people whose ideas they respect and admire, but also have the courage to stand up and say what they really believe. And be prepared to take the consequences.

HEFFNER: Have you had to take consequences, by the way?

GOLDSTEIN: Oh, absolutely.

HEFFNER: How? Where?

GOLDSTEIN: Absolutely. I … hmmm … when I was recruited to be the Chancellor of the university … I had a history at City University. I went to CCNY as a student, I was privileged to serve Baruch College as President for seven or eight years. And then I left thinking I had done my best work and lots of circumstances brought me back.

But I was thrusted into a very, very contentious environment, which I had started in a much more local way when I was at Baruch, but now it was ratcheted up to this large university. The consequences that I took were confronting people who could have thrown me out of the university, but I thought that they were wrong and I stood up to them.

So I took a risk, but I was … I said to myself, “If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right or I shouldn’t be doing it at all.” So I stood up and I took some real shots from some political people and from some people that had an, an opportunity to, you know, mobilize some movement to toss me out of the university, but I really stood my ground.

But there have been other instances, it’s not just me, it’s the presidents that we have hired. It’s some of the very articulate faculty, that were very supportive of what we’re doing.

Our chairman of our board, Benno Schmidt, who I think is an extraordinary educator, former President of Yale, stood with me, in partnership, to reshape so much of what we needed to get done in this university. And the two of us were heckled, and there was a meeting once where people were throwing smoke bombs at us. I mean it was … these, these were … I never thought my life was threatened, but, you know, demonstrations in front of my house.

But at the end of the day if you’re not prepared to take the consequences of paradigm shifts and, and that’s why you were brought in, to really change the direction … one you shouldn’t be doing the job, and number two, you should be willing to suffer the high risks that, that kind of an approach will take.

HEFFNER: What risks are you going to have to take in the near future?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I don’t think a job like Chancellor of the City University New York is, is ever over. It is … universities are organic institutions. They shed things that no longer work, and they absorb things that you need to do in order to, to move forward. So it’s almost like an organism that really just is, is feeding itself and, and extracting things that it doesn’t need to do any more.

We have major challenges still ahead for this university. We are still a poorly funded university, we still need to work with students that are not succeeding to the degree that we would like them to succeed …

HEFFNER: Before they get to the City University?

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. Yes. We, we … when I came in as Chancellor, along with the board, we tiered the system. By tiering the system I mean we established a set of institutions that are the most selective institutions in the system.

We overlayed on top of that an honors college and we overlayed on that some very prestigious professional schools. We have a middle tier of institutions that are baccalaureate institutions that don’t have the same entrance requirements that our top tier institutions do. And we have an open admissions group of institutions, which every state university in the United States has.

And that open admissions group of institutions which are our associate degree programs … have many students who come in very poorly prepared to do baccalaureate work. The majority of them need to have remedial instruction to make up for the deficiencies that they experienced before they arrived at this university.

Many of them are coming to this country for the, for the first time. They were educated in places around the world where their education was way below par. Their English is not their first language and many of them are native students who, for a variety of reasons just never were educated up to the level that we would need them to be.

That is a big challenge to take those students as, not young people any more, and get them ready to do university work. And for me that is a critical element in how I see spending my time. Because I know that unless the City University of New York intervenes with interventions that will help shape them in the appropriate way so that they can go on, they are not going to be participants in the way that they would like to and that I would like to in an economy that … going back to my first statement is unforgiving of people without the tools.

HEFFNER: And that’s where you think … that’s where your concerns come from. If you had to make a bet, Chancellor … maybe that’s not fair on my part … and I would usually say in a case like this … just between the two of us … seriously, what’s your bet as to whether we as a nation … I’m not now talking about the City University of New York … I’m not now talking about the progress you’ve made … I’m talking about your observation of urban education in the United States.

GOLDSTEIN: I think we know how to attack the problem. It’s going to take great resolve. It’s going to take courage to say the things that need to be said and it’s going to take investment. And unless you have those three elements and those three elements are absorbed in whoever your leaders are, I don’t think that we’re going to be able to solve this problem.

But I am an optimistic person. I think with the will, with the tenacity, with the wisdom that we have, with the sense of purpose that we have always had as a nation, we can solve much of where I see this problem is. Will we solve it completely? I’m not sure about that.

HEFFNER: You talk about will, tenacity, wisdom … you’ve talked about courage … do we have the resources?

GOLDSTEIN: I believe we have the resources. Absolutely. When I look and I see … and I’m a free marketeer, I believe in, in giving people an opportunity that have the desire, that have the wisdom, that have the creative thrust and have the entrepreneurial spirit to let them do their best work. That’s what this country was founded on. It was founded on the entrepreneur. You go back and read American history, it is … you know, the Morgans, the Carnegies, all of these people were really entrepreneurs and they, they had the tenacity, they had the focus, they had the will, they had the intellect, they had the drive … they got it done. I think we certainly have a tradition in this country to get it done. It’s just a matter of having the right people with the courage, with the sense of purpose … to articulate what is going to be needed to develop the political kind of support … we are a very wealthy country and we cannot continue to be a leader in this world if we leave too many people behind and if the majority of our citizens are not going to be educated in the ways that we know they need to be educated in order to attack the kinds of competitive environments that we’re facing.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that others around the world have seen and acted upon these assumptions more and better than we have in recent years?

GOLDSTEIN: I think that if you travel in Asia and in East Asia, throughout Europe, Eastern Europe you are seeing an explosion of investments in, in the areas of the stem disciplines, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Very, very quick story. A few months ago I went to Nanjing, a, a wonderful imperial city, one of the great coastal cities in China. There is an explosion of new, of new development, of new colleges and universities. And I went and met with a number of the presidents of maybe six or seven universities. And I said to them, “How many new Ph.D. students do you take in each year in mathematics and in physics and in chemistry and …”. And the number was about 125.

Come back to this country and you ask the same question … “We’ll take in 15 students, 20 students, maybe 25 students.” So they are … in that one part of the world … and we’re seeing it throughout China; we’re seeing it throughout East Asia, in India; we’re seeing it also in, in Eastern Europe. There are much larger numbers of students being engaged at an early enough age to get the skills that they need so that they can exercise the option, if they so desire, to start studying these disciplines at a very high level.

In the United States, while we have some of the most elite universities, anywhere, it is still the envy of universities all over the world … there are still large numbers of universities that are not attracting students that are interested in these disciplines. Why? Because they’re hard, they require serious work and they require a foundation … you just can’t start when you’re 18 years old … you really have to start at a very young age. They’re starting at a very young age around the world, and when they get to a university they’re ready to do very serious work.

HEFFNER: You say you’re an optimist. And I appreciate that. I don’t think you could be in your position, I don’t think the Carnegie Corporation would have granted that award, named you as it did … if you weren’t. But if you compare today and I’m not thinking only about the City University which has been a success story, but I’m thinking about higher education in the United States. Go back 10 years … have we done what would lead you to say, “We’ve done this, we’re continuing on the road … there’s the basis for my optimism”.

GOLDSTEIN: There, there … I, I … when I look at some of the great state universities and the great private universities, I’m emboldened by the future … future possibilities. But there are facts that one cannot dispute.

One, almost uniformly across the United States … state governments have disinvested in public higher education. There has been a, a transformation of supporting higher education from government to students, with high tuition. We’re coming to a point in the United States, where the best State Universities look very much like the best private universities.

And I don’t think that is a, a good … a good transformation in higher education because public universities have always been there for students that didn’t have the ability to support very high tuition.

What we need to do is to keep access available, but keep quality very, very high. And with the disinvestments from state governments, quality is the thing that is being compromised and with all of the money, the cash that has been out there on the street today and endowments of the major private university exploding … what we’re seeing is a group of institutions accelerating ahead of most of the other institutions that are largely state universities and less prestigious private universities. And I think, you know, we’re, we’re just getting to be a two society kind of higher education community.

HEFFNER: We must come back, Chancellor Goldstein, and talk about that two society form of education … you’ve been a wonderful guest, thank you for joining me on The Open Mind once again.

GOLDSTEIN: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: 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 $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR 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.