Posted on June 9, 2014 by Ruth O’Brien

What a Catch-22! On one hand, some small news sources are complaining about how much the City University of New York (CUNY) is paying for our promising new Chancellor’s rent on an apartment (not a house). Now, while I don’t have the data, I’ve been in teaching at CUNY long enough to know that I don’t need to bother looking up the “comps.” I have every confidence that our Chancellor’s digs are nowhere near comparable to those of the head of any public or private institution near New York City or in the tristate area.

On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal runs a not-so-subtle warning or preemptive attack trying to slander this highly accomplished administrator’s ability to raise external funding for CUNY before he’s put a week worth of work under his higher-education belt.

CUNY is now the largest urban public university, bar none. Given the decimation of public education beginning in the late 1970s, as the federal government began winding down the postwar build-up of higher education that had led to more social mobility than the United States has ever seen before or since, it seems as if we’re long overdue for rebuilding our educational infrastructure. (I keep hoping Hillary Clinton will make higher education a big priority in her domestic agenda.)

Clearly, CUNY is trying to catch up as fast as we can to the rest of the big publics and the well-endowed private colleges and universities. And clearly we are woefully behind having depended on the public sector more than private donations. We needed a Chancellor who can help our almost half-million-strong student body reduce the educational-inequality gaps that plague the nation, and especially this nationally and internationally renowned city, as the income-inequality gaps grow ever larger.  And this does mean stepping up to the hybrid public-private model of funding public higher education practiced by the rest of the nation.

A couple of things a Wall Street Journal reader should keep in perspective: First, the big publics (e.g. UC-Berkeley, UCLA, University of Michigan, University of Virginia) have not been truly public for over a generation. The University of Michigan, for instance, is 95 percent not funded by Michigan state dollars. (And accordingly this so-called public university’s out-of-state tuition is the same as any Ivy League university.)

And second, the Ivies, and other prestigious private colleges that dangle legacy as their incentive to the upper middle class, are competing for the same donation dollars. Just read Science magazine’s special segments, including Jeffreys Mervis’ 2013 piece entitled “How Long Can the U.S. Stay on Top?.”  These articles outlines the pros and cons of the higher-education hybrid model that relies on philanthropy and federal, not state, funding.

So why would Wall Street begrudge CUNY a talented leader? Why is this news greeting our promising new Chancellor with so much anti-Midwest, East Coast establishment parochialism? Why shouldn’t the largest urban public university hire an administrator with an impressive public-education philanthropic track record?

Perhaps the Wall Street Journal is speaking strictly for Wall Street.  Perhaps Wall Street is afraid that CUNY might finally start getting its due raising money from private donors who value pure public purpose? What happens when Chancellor Milliken manages to turn over the applecart about the Big Apple’s dismal record of funding higher education?

And what happens when it becomes part of public consciousness how well CUNY has done, and still does so much for its students, with so little?  While former Mayor Mike Bloomberg donated huge amounts of monies that promoted his own private educational legacy, Mayor Bill de Blasio is looking in the right direction, noticing CUNY’s legacy — its contribution to New York City and economic recovery.

Chancellor Milliken’s past performance predicts promising future behavior. CUNY’s board voted for him unanimously with great enthusiasm, since his record spoke so clearly for him. (He exceeded his own $1.2 billion campaign after he left Nebraska, with the total being near $1.8 billion.) Chancellor Milliken left the Nebraska plains to return to America’s greatest city, where he will have undoubtedly even more success. Nebraska’s loss is New York’s gain, so why does Wall Street care so much?