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CUNY embraces mediocrity in the name of equity

Equity, to paraphrase Kris Kristofferson, is just another word for faking out the fools. Take the City University of New York.

CUNY, once America’s premier urban public university, almost disappeared into the equity abyss four decades ago; it was rescued after a mighty struggle and returned to a fair measure of its former respectability.

Now it’s headed back downhill at an ever-accelerating pace — ostensibly in the name of equality of outcome — and nobody seems even to notice, let alone care.

The university’s latest surrender to mediocrity came in mid-January, when Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez grandly announced it will no longer be necessary to do college-level academic work to receive graduation credit at CUNY’s seven community colleges.

How long it will take for that policy to migrate to the institution’s 11 senior colleges is anybody’s guess; entropy being what it is, however, it’ll happen soon enough — if it hasn’t already.

Here’s a summary of the sad facts.

CUNY’s student body overwhelmingly is drawn from the New York City public-school system. Way back in the day, when city schools more or less worked, CUNY freshmen arrived more or less prepared for college-level instruction.

CUNY’s seven community colleges no longer require college-level academic work to receive graduation credit.
Christopher Sadowski

This began to change as Gotham’s public schools gradually fell victim to cultural change, an avaricious teachers union and profound political neglect.

Social promotion became the rule, and CUNY classrooms began to fill with grossly unprepared students. Back then, just about anybody could walk through the door and take a seat, irrespective of qualifications.

The results were predictable: highly racialized political turmoil and a sharp decline in the university’s already-deteriorating academic standards — and reputation.

Then, in the late ’90s, Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, the late Herman Badillo, former CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein and a brave band of others collaborated on reforms meant to ensure freshmen were doing college-level work before they got degree credit.

The doors were still open, but the unqualified were channeled into mandatory, non-credit remedial classes to prepare for the main event. And the colleges went about the business of educating bona fide college students.

Charter schools aside, this may have been the single most significant victory for quality public education in New York in decades.

Math, Engineering and Science Academy Charter High School
CUNY’s student body is drawn from the New York City public-school system.
Stephen Yang

And it was this restoration that Rodriguez unblushingly “reformed” out of existence last month.

“Replacing the outdated remedial approach with a more effective, equitable and evidence-based system is an important advance in our ongoing mission to provide our students with educational opportunity,” he proclaimed.

“A large majority of the students assigned to remedial courses were low-income students of color,” he continued, “who were prevented from taking credit-bearing courses and progressing toward their degrees.”

Students were barred from credit-bearing courses because of color? This is pernicious nonsense.

They couldn’t do the work, and — individual effort aside — structural blame goes to the $31-billion-a-year shipwreck now masquerading as a public-school system in New York City.

Manhattan Charter School
Unqualified students were channeled into mandatory, non-credit remedial classes to prepare for the main event.
J.C. Rice

(These days, kids needn’t even come to school to graduate, let alone pass tests, and far too many do neither.)

Race is playing its usual role here — as a refuge for scoundrels. Rodriguez needs to explain how granting college credit for learning skills that should have been mastered by ninth grade helps anyone — especially “students of color.”

But doing so would expose his fraud for what it is, so don’t hold your breath.  

Nevertheless, one day his kids are going to be entering the workplace — largely unprepared — and while the “equity” swindle is making dubious progress there too, most of them are going to get a rude shock.

Yes, the chancellor is playing a shamefully cynical game here, but there’s likely more to it than race-baiting: Recruiting more marginal kids means more tuition and grant income for a financially strapped institution suffering from a 9% post-pandemic enrollment drop. Follow the money, as they say.

Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez
Dr. Felix V. Matos Rodriguez became the Chancellor of the City University of New York in 2019.
Paul Martinka

Still, while Rodriguez’ culpability is real, he’s just the latest in a long line of “educators” to chip away at the integrity of what once was a world-class K-16 public-education collaboration.

In the late ’90s, then-state education commissioner Richard Mills began to devalue New York’s gold-standard Regents-examination accountability system. Today, Albany is poised to abandon it altogether: The decline has been real, sustained — and just maybe terminal.

And at each step along the way, this slow-motion disintegration has been justified, at least inferentially, as necessary for “students of color” to fit in.

That is, if you can’t teach ’em, blame ’em.

It’s a pitiful, patronizing approach to public education — and yet Rodriguez seems to be proud of what he has done.

For shame.


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