Ten years ago, I joined the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York—or, as the newspapers at the time called it, Remediation U. Seventy percent of incoming freshmen failed at least one remedial test in the three R’s. Enrollment had been steadily declining for years, and graduation rates were woefully low.
Fast-forward to today. Enrollment has reached the highest point since we began charging tuition in the 1970s. The average SAT scores of our freshmen are almost in the top third nationwide, and we have twice as many incoming students who graduated from high school with an 85 or better average as we did 10 years ago.
If the CUNY I joined resembled in many ways countless other failing urban public universities across the country—including the University of the District of Columbia—the questions are: How did we turn our school around, and can our approaches be applied at other schools?
We first had to have a bold and dynamic leader who shared the board’s commitment to CUNY’s mission: offering an accessible, high-quality education. This was our chancellor, Matthew Goldstein. We then had to stand by him as the much-needed reforms he implemented—introducing admissions standards and overhauling remedial education—gave rise to an onslaught of criticism.
In this regard, the University of the District of Columbia is moving in the right direction. President Allen L. Sessoms, with the backing of the board, has set out to fulfill the university’s promise to offer “broad opportunities for a diverse student population” by preparing them to become “productive citizens with marketable skills.” He aims to do so by splitting UDC into a four-year university with admission standards and a community college that would remain open to all.
His plan would allow the university to carry out both aspects of its mandate: The community college’s open-enrollment policy will ensure accessibility, and the four-year university, relieved from the burden of remediation, can focus on a proper undergraduate curriculum.
As things stand, UDC attempts to combine both mandates and succeeds at neither. As a recent Brookings Institution report said, UDC “struggles with the dual missions of a community college and a state university, straining its resources and hampering effectiveness.” The report also notes that Washington is the only major American city without a full-fledged community college and calls for the creation of one.
Now, Sessoms and the UDC board of trustees are trying to do just that. Their efforts have already drawn the ire of critics who believe admissions standards will lead to a precipitous drop in enrollment. In reality, the contrary is true. Under the current open-admission policy, enrollment has plummeted from a high of 15,000 in the 1970s to about 5,700 this past fall. Meanwhile at CUNY, enrollment has soared across the board since we reintroduced admissions standards in 1999. When endowments are tumbling and families face acute financial pressures, more of the “same old, same old” simply doesn’t cut it: It doesn’t inspire confidence in our universities and it doesn’t attract those increasingly rare philanthropic dollars. Bold, well-informed leadership—in the form of presidents who will challenge the status quo where needed, and boards who will stick with them—does. That’s the lesson of CUNY’s renaissance—and UDC seems to have learned it. In these challenging times for higher education, I hope that Allen Sessoms and the trustees will hold fast—and that students and parents will support them.
The writer is a trustee of the City University of New York and the chairman of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s Institute for Effective Governance.