Looking Back, Departing City U. of New York Chief Says He Has No Regrets


Matthew Goldstein
April 29, 2013

Matthew Goldstein took over a system in 1999 that had just been called "moribund" by the chairman of a mayoral panel and, 14 years later, is being described as "the man who saved CUNY" in a New York Times editorial.

Mr. Goldstein, 71, said last month that he would step down as chancellor of the City University of New York system this summer.

He leaves the 24-institution system, which serves 270,000 two- and four-year degree-seeking students and 220,000 others, "wistfully," he says by phone. But, he says, "everybody needs to know an appropriate time to step down."

Colleagues credit him with turning a loose confederation into a coherent entity with sound standards and practices. Praise for his leadership is echoed even by faculty groups, though with a few bitter provisos.

Mr. Goldstein effected a Board of Trustees plan to shift remedial education away from four-year campuses and concentrate it at the community colleges, effectively ending a policy of admitting any New York City applicants who had graduated in the top third of their high-school classes to one of the senior colleges.

Next he introduced systemwide standardized assessment, a plan that met with much opposition initially, even among trustees. Enrollments surged, and so did the average test scores of students entering the system's most-prestigious colleges. Critics have said the changes lowered the share of enrollment by blacks and Hispanics among first-time freshmen at those top institutions. CUNY officials, in turn, stand by their success in improving black and Hispanic enrollments and graduation rates during Mr. Goldstein's tenure. Both the CUNY officials and their critics cite statistics that back their claims.

The system hired 1,700 new full-time faculty during his tenure, with an emphasis on core areas including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Mr. Goldstein developed a new "compact" with state and city governments that better secured operational funds and allowed more predictability in tuition costs and levels of financial aid.

With that, he says, the system got out of the "dice game" of budget requests, and could attend more to securing corporate, philanthropic, and alumni support. Since he took over, private donations have risen from $50-million to $250-million a year, university officials say. Since 2004, the first systemwide campaign has reached its initial, $1.2-billion goal, and has in its sights the $3-billion Phase 2 target.

CUNY has opened an honors college, its first new community college in four decades, and new specialized units in areas like public health and journalism—the latter because "for the media capital of the world not to have a public graduate school of journalism was wrong," he says.

Mr. Goldstein came to the chancellorship as a former president of CUNY's Baruch College, the CUNY Research Foundation, and, briefly, Adelphi University. "I had a number of ideas," he says, and "many, I knew, were going to be very difficult to implement." But, in the end, he says: "I believe in all sincerity that we've accomplished much more than I had ever envisaged."

Still, he allows, "to say that there wasn't pushback from a lot of quarters wouldn't be true."

He has most recently taken heat over a new system of core-curriculum requirements put in place in 2011 that he believes provide for greatly streamlined transfers among CUNY campuses. Key faculty groups have sued to stop those changes, contending that they threaten to spiff up graduation rates at the cost of educational outcomes. The groups say that Mr. Goldstein and the CUNY board bypassed mandatory faculty input—the shared governance that the chancellor has long professed to support.

The program, called Pathways, is just the latest change administrators have "shoved down the throats" of the faculty, says Costas Panayotakis, a social scientist at New York City College of Technology and officer of the Professional Staff Congress, the CUNY faculty union. Of Mr. Goldstein and the trustees' arguments in favor of Pathways, he says, "it's mind-boggling they would give rationales that are so flimsy and easy to debunk and not based on any sort of research." Their move has "demoralized" the faculty, he says, and exemplifies a national trend away from faculty governance in pursuit of "market efficiency."

In statements and in court, the trustees have asserted a right to determine academic policy and have accused the plaintiffs of failing for 40 years to deliver any viable core-curriculum-and-transfer plan.

Mr. Goldstein says he views criticism of his leadership through the lens of his own shock at what he found at CUNY when he returned to it decades after graduating, in 1963, from its City College of New York. People then were asking "very serious questions" about "the value of the academic experience students were receiving," he says.

In trying to resolve those issues, he says, "I would not have done anything differently than I did."

In his coming semi-retirement, he may teach a graduate mathematics course or two, but will concentrate on helping to raise funds and find his replacement. (William P. Kelly, president of CUNY's Graduate Center, will serve as interim chancellor, starting July 1.) "I know an awful lot of people in higher education," says Mr. Goldstein. "And I still have a lot of energy."