Higher education delivers clear and quantifiable financial benefits for students, business, and society. For graduates, degrees increase income; for business and society, research generates thousands of patents, start-up companies, and licenses in any given year, contributing billions of dollars to the national economy and increasing competitiveness. Little wonder that higher education has become big business.
But because higher education is foundational for much of the human activity that constitutes our shared culture, it is far more than that. Higher education proves its value in non-economic terms, especially in the aesthetic, intellectual, and ethical problems and issues that faculty and students address. It cultivates skepticism, criticism and dissent, and so is crucial to the ongoing project of building just, equitable, and democratic societies.
Higher education is thus both a means and an end: while it equips us with knowledge and skills applicable for practical or instrumental purposes, it cultivates in us habits of mind responsive to questions that are perennial, even unanswerable. It benefits both the individual and society, making both healthier and wealthier in the broadest possible senses.
The promise of higher education now has added urgency given the socio-economic and technological changes we are experiencing.
In most countries of the industrialized West, inequality is deepening and stratification increasing; in the United States, wealth is now a far better predictor of educational achievement than talent.1 Education militates against growing inequality by opening up opportunity and activating talent. As globalization redistributes workforces and redirects economic growth, regional and city economies—including those in New York City and New York State—increasingly rely upon the knowledge, fresh thinking and technological skills that colleges and universities generate. And in a digital age when opinions are plentiful, and information and data increasingly proprietary, access to impartial research and information is a democratic imperative.
In this context of socio-economic and technological changes, public education has a crucial role to play. Four-year public colleges and universities educate close to seven million students annually (about two-thirds of all those enrolled nationally), and so both represent and serve American socio-economic, racial, and ethnic diversity.2 However, they now operate within a matrix of chronic financial constraint and ongoing cultural confusion. The very nature of college and university education is in question and flux, especially as the profile of the student body evolves and responds to economic pressures. Public debates about affirmative action and racial justice illustrate how political and social pressures make educational institutions focal points of contestation, protest, and social experiment. And costs, driven by competition for talent, employee benefits, regulatory burdens, research aspirations, and aging infrastructure, are out of balance with affordability, leading some to argue that colleges and universities are ripe for ‘disruption’.3
Of all of the changes and pressures experienced by higher education, the one that has the sharpest effect upon public colleges and universities is the decline in state funding. Since the 2008 recession, state support per student has dropped by 18% nationally and 6.4% in New York.4 Public colleges and universities have compensated by raising tuition and fees and, where possible, increasing enrollment. In public research universities, the share of revenue provided by state appropriations between 2001 and 2012 dropped from 31% to 17%, and net tuition and fees have risen from 13% to 23%.5
The Graduate Center and CUNY
The Graduate Center is at once an integral part of CUNY and one of America’s leading institutions of higher education.
As one of CUNY’s 25 colleges and units, the Graduate Center receives state support through an annual allocation from CUNY’s central offices, which regulate—and, to a large extent, centralize—a wide variety of financial, personnel, and information technology (IT) functions. By virtue of the teaching consortium that underpins the doctoral program, as well as the teaching assignments across CUNY that students fulfill as part of their doctoral training, no CUNY campus is more integrated into the system of colleges than the Graduate Center.
In fact, the doctoral consortium, which offers a highly efficient system of advanced teaching and supervision that draws upon CUNY’s scale and diversity, is arguably the single most powerful and successful academic feature of the ‘connected university’:6 it brings into focus at the Graduate Center the extraordinary range and depth of expertise possessed by campus-based faculty, who carry out about 70% of doctoral teaching and supervision.
For the campuses and their faculty, appointment to doctoral programs delivers opportunities to teach and supervise highly stimulating students, and so serves as a recruitment and retention tool for campus departments.
A project by Ph.D. student Sara Vogel
(Urban Education), whose research focuses on the intersection of bilingual and digital media education, was featured in a White House announcement about former President Barack Obama’s Computer Science for All campaign.
For the Graduate Center, perhaps no benefit of integration is greater than participating in the extraordinary project of combining access and excellence that is CUNY. Well over half of CUNY undergraduates qualify for state and federal financial aid; 42.2% of CUNY students are the first in their families to attend college and 44.5% come from families where the native language is other than English. In racial and ethnic terms, CUNY is a microcosm of America’s city-driven diversity: 31.4% of CUNY students are Hispanic, 26.2% are Black, 20.3% are Asian, and 21.8% are White.7 Central to our mission, and a distinctive, attractive element of the graduate training we offer, is the opportunity given to our students to teach in CUNY classrooms filled with these diverse and ambitious undergraduates.
In sum, the Graduate Center is organic to CUNY, and a crucial part of its enterprise to deliver access and excellence. And the stronger CUNY is, both financially and academically, the stronger the Graduate Center.
Yet the Graduate Center also faces outward—beyond CUNY and New York City to a state, national, and international community of students, scholars, teachers, researchers, employers, and members of the public.
Most of the first students to attend the Graduate Center in 1961 came from New York City, but today they arrive from all over the world. Alumni now secure jobs and pursue careers on a global stage, and faculty and visiting academics are now global in origin and impact. By virtue of reputation, size, and research, the Graduate Center is an institution with national and worldwide influence, one of a select group of ‘R-1’ research universities (the highest of the Carnegie classifications) that shoulder the responsibility of educating the next generation of scholars and researchers, and carrying out fundamental and applied research of national significance.
Recent Budgetary Pressure and Academic Progress
Reductions in state support to CUNY have had a painful impact upon the Graduate Center, which relies upon state appropriations for most of its operating budget, with the balance comprised of research grants, private giving and endowment returns, and auxiliary services. Over the last 18 months, the Graduate Center has absorbed what amounts to a more than 6% cut to its base allocation. These reductions, which do not include the shift to the Graduate Center of other financial liabilities, form but the most recent installments in a near decade-long series of reductions that amount to some $16 million in total.
Other public colleges and institutions have responded to reductions by increasing tuition levels and/or enrollment. Because of a narrow tuition base, which consists almost entirely of modest master’s enrollment, this has been impossible at the Graduate Center. Expenses have accordingly been reduced, in some cases very sharply.
Despite these challenges, the Graduate Center has made significant progress. Several initiatives have taken place, all advancing one or more of the three major goals that were set out in the 2012-2016 Strategic Plan. These include:
Effecting dramatic improvement in selectivity. A trend that began in 2005 (when the doctoral admission rate was 40.9%) has accelerated since 2011 (when it was 29.3%). In fall 2016, offers of admission were made to 18.2% of those who applied. During the same time, yield has increased from 53.4% to 64.4%. It is especially noteworthy that while increased selectivity is frequently accompanied by decreased diversity, the Graduate Center has delivered a moderate increase in racial and ethnic diversity between 2005 and 2016.
Advancing our commitment to diversity and inclusion through a range of investments and initiatives, including enhancing financial support for students, recruiting post-doctoral students from underrepresented groups, and creating a Presidential Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion chaired by a newly appointed Presidential Advisor on Diversity and Inclusion.
Establishing the Advanced Research Collaborative which, in attracting 85 scholar-teachers to the Graduate Center, has invested in CUNY campus-based faculty, opened mentoring opportunities for students, and organized a wide variety of programs.
Laying the foundation for a hub of student support services, including an Office for Career Planning and Professional Development and a Teaching and Learning Center, both of which are improving students’ professional development.
Launching, with considerable support from external sources, several teaching and research initiatives, such as the Humanities Alliance, the Futures Initiative, the Graduate Center Digital Initiatives (GCDI), and the Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality.
Addressing longstanding deficiencies in the study of natural and quantitative sciences by securing funding for a Center for Digital Scholarship and Data Visualization, and executing the recommendations of the 2015 Robinson Report on the Bench Sciences.8
Creating a network of partnerships with New York City cultural and academic institutions that provide student research opportunities, including the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library & Museum, New-York Historical Society, the New York Botanical Garden, and the Vera Institute of Justice, among others.
Purchasing a site in Long Island City to build a student and faculty residence, which will complement the Graduate Center Apartment Complex at 165 East 118th Street.
As judged by several measures—staffing levels, number of executive positions, size of incoming doctoral cohorts, and number of Graduate Center faculty—the Graduate Center is somewhat smaller than in years past, but it is an altogether stronger and more accomplished institution. This, too, can be measured in any number of ways: the ongoing recruitment of stellar faculty (including a Nobel Prize winner—the institution’s first); an array of student, faculty and institutional awards (including a Pulitzer Prize, five Guggenheim Fellowships in the last five years, and another MacArthur Fellowship in 2016); our graduates’ job placements and careers; record-setting levels of foundation support; a doubling of master’s enrollment since 2011; and greater recognition and visibility in the larger academic and professional communities.
Strengths and Vulnerabilities
Now in its 53rd year, the Graduate Center can take deep pride in the academic excellence of its faculty and students, in a growing reputation for innovation in several disciplinary and interdisciplinary areas, and in its commitment to the public good. Other public universities can make similar claims, but we are unique in possessing three extraordinary advantages.
The first advantage is location and orientation. CUNY—and so the Graduate Center—is present in virtually every neighborhood in every borough of New York City. Understanding the challenges that face cities is crucially important to our nation’s well-being, and for the future of the globe. We have long-standing academic strengths in the study of cities, urbanism, the environment, immigration, education, globalization, and the linguistic and cultural challenges specific to city life. New York City, a hotbed of economic, political, and artistic activities, is our seminar room—and a powerful magnet for the best students and faculty.
The second advantage is CUNY’s scale and diversity. CUNY serves approximately 274,000 full-time students, who come from the most diverse socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds imaginable. Approximately 75% of freshmen who enroll at CUNY are graduates of the New York City public school system.9 In this remarkable sea of difference and pool of talent, the Graduate Center has unparalleled opportunities to innovate in pedagogy, to engage in research, and to impact through teaching.
The third advantage is the Graduate Center’s focus and mission. Typical graduate schools are administrative and financial structures that connect the teaching, supervision, and learning carried out by professors and graduate students to the much larger enterprise of undergraduate and professional education that is the core business of a research university. As such, beyond admitting and funding students, they are modest in resources, reach and authority, and rely largely upon departments organized according to the needs of undergraduate education.
The Graduate Center, in contrast, is a self-standing institution that is financed and administered entirely in the service of graduate and advanced research. As such, it has the considerable competitive advantage of focus and mission, which—once fully realized in the services and opportunities presented to students and faculty alike—can be transformed into an asset that sets the Graduate Center apart.
Alongside these advantages, the Graduate Center has vulnerabilities, and these jeopardize our excellence and impact. They include:
Impediments to fostering academic community and innovation;
Relative weakness in the natural sciences;
Modest institutional recognition, especially outside of the academy;
Ongoing financial insecurity; and
Constraints of space, IT capacity and deferred maintenance.
Here it should be emphasized that the Carnegie R-1 category of research universities almost entirely consists of institutions with enrollments and budgets that dwarf—by factors of five, ten, and even twenty—those of the Graduate Center. That the Graduate Center punches so far above its weight, and so brings great credit to CUNY, is testimony to the excellence of our faculty and the cost-effectiveness of our operations.
The Graduate Center has made remarkable progress over the last five years. But in large part because of severe financial constraints, this progress has been academic in character and incremental in scale. Put another way, many of the Graduate Center’s strengths result directly from careful planning and effective execution, but too little strategizing and too few resources have been directed towards addressing institutional vulnerabilities that threaten the academic enterprise.
There is nothing like the Graduate Center—self-standing and yet thoroughly networked into the ‘connected university’ that is CUNY; a degree-granting institution organized in the service of doctoral education; an assembly of academic centers, institutes and initiatives designed to foster scholarship and research; a loose community of scholar-teachers and student-teachers; and a stage and forum for outreach and public programming. The challenge we face is to combine our disparate parts into a compelling and coherent project.
A recent period of contraction must now be followed by transformative growth across the institution—in academic excellence, impact, financial diversification and resourcefulness, and institutional resilience.