EW YORK -- The bitter leadership struggle at the City University of New York has left it at a historic crossroads, with its new trustees saying they are determined to revive an institution that many say has been in decline since it instituted open admissions in the early 1970s.
The departure of CUNY's chancellor, W. Ann Reynolds, who will become president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham in September, clears the way for the new majority of trustees to bring in their own executive and to focus on what they want to do with the university.
There has been constant friction between Dr. Reynolds and the board, which is now controlled by trustees appointed in the last year by Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
The trustees talk more in specifics than of overall strategy, pointing to everything from giving campuses more autonomy to changing the university's security system to looking for duplication among programs. But one theme that comes up again and again is the question of raising standards.
CUNY could easily raise its graduation rates and spend less on remedial classes by restricting who is allowed into the college. The trustees are quick to point out, however, that they have no control over who enters CUNY, since New York State law mandates that anyone with a high school degree or its equivalent must be admitted.
But as Herman Badillo, the vice chairman of the board and an adviser to Mayor Giuliani, said last week, CUNY does have the freedom to dismiss students more quickly than it does now. "The legislature doesn't tell us what to do once they are in the college," he said. "That is my job as a trustee."
And he said he felt strongly that there should be a limit on remedial work to bring students to the point where they are ready to handle college-level courses.
"We don't help anyone by having remediation that goes on forever," he said. "There are people who you can help. That's why we have remediation. But there are others who have home problems, or are so far behind educationally, or who have personal problems, or for whatever reasons can't make it."
Where Mr. Badillo is eager to cap remedial work, Anne A. Paolucci, a former professor of English at St. John's University who became chairwoman of the board in February, talks of assessing whether remedial education is taking money from the rest of the university.
"We may have to address in a very serious way whether there are people from whom we are taking money and services," Dr. Paolucci said. "State budgets have been drained by special education and remediation. It is a national problem."
Such talk scares people like Edith Everett, a longtime trustee and an outspoken opponent of the new majority on the CUNY board. "I am very much concerned about whether the new leadership will keep the same mission of trying to do as much as possible to give a decent education to as many as possible," she said. "I get the feeling that is not their mission, and that they want to shrink this place."
She said projections indicate that by the year 2000, more than 50 percent of CUNY's students will have limited proficiency in English. "We can't ignore those people and say, 'You are not fit to come to us,"'she said.
Assemblyman Edward C. Sullivan of Manhattan, chairman of the Assembly's Higher Education Committee, expressed similar concerns. If the board tries to solve its problems "by reducing the size of the student body, that will be very, very bad for the state of New York," he said. "A high school diploma doesn't cut it anymore. People have found this out. That is why they are jamming into the community colleges."
To some education experts, it is just these issues -- the same ones faced by many urban universities today -- that will define where CUNY is headed in the next century.
Hundreds of thousands of city residents and new immigrants look to CUNY for the diplomas they believe they need to win decent jobs. Some are wonderful students. But others enter the university unprepared for college work, and sometimes not even speaking much English.
"People need to own up to changed circumstances and decide what CUNY ought to be," said Carl Hayden, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents. "This is an opportunity for them to redefine themselves and CUNY's mission, and they should get on with it. They know they're unhappy. But I don't think anybody has agreed on what they're unhappy about and how to fix it."
The pressure for change comes at a time when CUNY is already reeling from sharp criticism by the mayor, the governor and the trustees themselves, about the low quality of the institution and the cheapening of the university's degrees.
The open warfare between the trustees and the departing chancellor has hurt faculty and student morale. The talk on the faculty's electronic bulletin board is not of research topics and teaching methods, but of how to defend CUNY from these attacks.
Years of budget cuts have reduced the faculty ranks and raised class sizes. At some CUNY colleges, more than half of all classes are taught by poorly paid, part-time adjunct faculty members who do not know whether they will be there from one semester to the next, and who have little time for student advising or curriculum issues.
Under Reynolds, CUNY had already begun work on raising standards. It had teamed up with the New York City school system to encourage students to take greater numbers of academically rigorous courses while they were in high school. In 1995, the board directed that students who needed more than a year of remedial work should go to the community colleges, rather than the four-year colleges.
Since then, several of CUNY's four-year colleges have raised their admission standards. Some, like Baruch, are trying to limit students to one term of remedial work, drawing praise from some trustees and suggestions that Matthew Goldstein, Baruch's president, ought to be considered as a successor to Dr. Reynolds.
But pushing needier students into the community colleges still leaves open the question of what CUNY wants from its six community colleges.
Those colleges have grown in the last 30 years as a gateway for students who have performed poorly in high school, for people who want to go to college part-time while they work, for welfare recipients trying to make their way into the workplace, and even for workers who need retraining.
Many of their students need extensive remedial work and drop in and out of college, although work by David Lavin, a CUNY sociologist, and others suggests that the community college graduation rates are far higher than has been recognized.
"If the perception of the board is that it takes a long time for students to go through and that they repeat things again and again, they are right," said Joshua Smith, director of New York University's Program in Higher Education and a former chancellor of California's community college system.
"But does anyone else have better answers?" he asked. "Some of the questions CUNY is facing are being wrestled with across the country, wherever there are many poor people and immigrants."
Dr. Paolucci acknowledges that CUNY faces a far different population from the one it served in the days when City College was viewed as the public Harvard University.
"Those days are gone forever, when there was a very limited clientele," she said. "That was a very different situation. Today we have so much diversity in the city and in CUNY. The change has been dramatic, and that presents special problems for us."
But how she and the other trustees will ultimately choose to deal with those differences remains to be seen.
The trustees have now hired two part-time researchers to gather information before decisions are made. And the trustees are taking over the third floor of the central administration building on East 80th Street, which has a meeting room, a library and several private offices where they and the researchers will be able to work. They hope to make structural and policy changes even before they have a permanent chancellor in place.
But on one thing Dr. Paolucci was emphatic: She does not intend to ask for any budget increases until changes have been made.
"The money is there to be distributed," she said. "We don't have to sacrifice anything. We have to convince them that we are doing everything possible to adjust and improve the situation. Then if we ask for more money, I think it would be forthcoming."
One place she hopes to seek savings is by looking at duplication among the colleges. "Perhaps we need a commission to look over the entire spectrum," she said, adding that she had seen the report produced several years ago by a panel headed by Leon Goldstein, the Kingsborough Community College president, but had not really scrutinized it.
"It fell flat, and I don't know why," Dr. Paolucci said, "But
it seems like something we might want to look at again."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company