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November 29th, 2014
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Chancellor Speaks on CUNY’s 21st Century Agenda

Chancellor Speaks on CUNY’s 21st Century Agenda

Speaking at a meeting of the Association for a Better New York, Chancellor James B. Milliken outlined an ambitious agenda for CUNY in the next decade that includes building research and technology development, expanding global opportunities and increasing digital education. The Chancellor said, "The most important city in the world should have the best public university in the world."

James B. Milliken is Chancellor of The City University of New York, the nation’s leading urban public university. Milliken was appointed Chancellor and Distinguished Professor of Law at the CUNY Law School by the CUNY Board of Trustees, effective June 1, 2014. Prior to his appointment at CUNY, Chancellor Milliken served as president of the University of Nebraska for a decade, where he also held appointments as professor at both the University of Nebraska’s College of Law and the School of Public Administration. He previously served as senior vice president of the 16-campus University of North Carolina.  He is member of the board of directors of American Council on Education (ACE) board, the Executive Committee of the Council on Competiveness, the Business-Higher Education Forum and is a past board member of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.   He has been a national leader in innovation and economic competitiveness, global engagement and on-line learning.

One hundred sixty seven years ago, CUNY opened its doors as the Free Academy on the site of the current Baruch College. Founder Townsend Harris said at the opening of the Free Academy in 1847: "let the children of the rich and poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct, and intellect." That vision remains vital today.

Over the first 100-plus years since CUNY's founding, the Free Academy evolved into City College, other colleges were added throughout the five boroughs and then in 1961, the public higher education campuses in New York City—graduate, senior and community colleges—were organized into The City University of New York. The list of notable CUNY alumni, including 13 Nobel Prize winners, is far too long to review, but suffice it to say that many, many talented, immigrant, first- generation and low-income New Yorkers got their start at CUNY, giving testament to its role, according to City College alumnus and Intel co-founder Andy Grove, as "the Great American Dream Machine."

The outstanding accomplishments of this modern era include the creation of a new model for a community college, graduate schools of journalism and public health, a highly selective Macaulay Honors College, which competes with top colleges in the nation for its students. Linda Macaulay, who with her husband Bill Macaulay endowed the school, is with us this morning with some very talented Macaulay students. These achievements and others put CUNY in the enviable position it's in now.

But a new day brings new challenges…and opportunities. The landscape of higher education is changing dramatically. At a time when educational attainment is universally recognized as a key to economic competitiveness, we have lost our lead. For most of our lifetimes, the United States ranked number one in educational attainment. Today we rank 14th. At the same time, there is greater media scrutiny and public skepticism about higher education than ever before. High costs of tuition are roundly criticized, the amount of debt students incur is astounding, and the quality and relevance of higher education is being questioned.

CUNY, more than most, has a strong rejoinder to the criticism.

This year CUNY has 274,000 degree seeking students—a record—and 260,000 adult and continuing education students. Think of that impact; here is one university in one city with a student body larger than the population of, well, Omaha. Forty percent of those students were born outside the US mainland. Our students hail from 205 countries and speak over 190 languages.

And if there is any institution doing something about income inequality, it's CUNY.

Three quarters of CUNY freshmen come from New York City high schools. And at a time when there is much attention to the value added of higher education, CUNY serves many students who otherwise would have little or no opportunity. Forty percent of our students come from families with a household income of under $20,000. CUNY has some of the lowest tuition levels in the country, but even our rates would be way out of reach to many of our students, if not for federal, state and local financial aid programs. As it is, 65 percent of full-time CUNY undergraduates pay no tuition. And at a time when the nation's student loan burden tops one trillion dollars, 80 percent of CUNY graduates leave with no debt from the federal student loan program.

CUNY should make no apologies for its pursuit of quality over the last 15 years. The fundamental mission of public higher education is to provide both access and excellence. One without the other serves our students and society poorly. Let me make this clear: on all counts CUNY is delivering on its promise far more than it did a generation ago. Innovative new programs such as ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs), which has tripled community college graduation rates, and CUNY Start, which allows students with remediation needs to address them in a pre-matriculation "boot camp," without paying tuition and without using up precious financial aid, are national models. Now over half of the undergraduates at our most selective colleges, such as Baruch, Hunter, Brooklyn, Queens and City, start as community college students, meet remediation requirements, and then transfer to a senior college. CUNY is providing a pathway that gives students a meaningful opportunity to succeed.

Is CUNY where it needs to be today? Despite all the progress, the answer is we have lots to do. Our goal should be for the university to achieve its full potential in serving the people of New York.

Our challenges are significant, but the payoff is enormous. Among the challenges: there are still too many students who arrive not ready for college. We need to deepen our partnership with the New York City schools, which provide three quarters of our new freshmen. Eighty percent of the students who enroll at our community colleges require remediation. We need to challenge our thinking about traditional remediation to most effectively serve students who arrive at our community colleges unprepared for college work.

Nationally there are far too many students who do not earn their degrees within a reasonable time, and CUNY is no exception. At the most basic level, such as addressing students' remediation needs, or providing an Associate Degree in a reasonable time that leads to a job or a senior institution, or moving senior college students towards a degree, we still have much work to do. We have some great programs, but we must address the challenges of scaling them effectively

To be leaders in preparing the workforce for the 21st century, we must, among other things, increase the emphasis on STEM education. Both the Governor with his scholarship program for STEM students and the Mayor with his historic new investment in STEM programs at our community colleges are strong supporters of this goal. CUNY has a key role to play here but real work needs to start in the public schools, where students' decisions about pursuing science and math are most often made and essential preparation takes place. This calls for new levels of collaboration among the schools, CUNY, government, labor and the private sector. There has been some good news on this front in New York, such as P-Tech and other similar programs, and we must build on these.

CUNY has a rich history, and in recent years we have become even better. The environment for public higher education is changing in ways that make CUNY more essential than ever. We have an ambitious agenda for CUNY which I hope you will support. If we are successful, the returns to students and to New York will be tremendous. The most important city in the world should have the best public university in the world—educating its young and old, addressing the challenges that it faces, partnering in its economic growth, contributing to the health of its people and enriching its cultural and civic life. The best city deserves the best public university. That's New York and that's CUNY.


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