Dear Commons Community,
Last week Catherine Leahy Scott, the New York State inspector general, issued a preliminary report that criticized the financial and management practices at the City University of New York. She commented that CUNY was a system “ripe for abuse” and she urged that “significant steps are immediately taken.” Governor Cuomo responded on Wednesday by announcing that he vowed to appoint inspectors general for both CUNY and the State University of New York, which has been reeling from a scandal of its own. Saying it was “time for new leadership,” he also directed the CUNY board to review the university’s “entire senior management” and the inspector general’s recommendations within 30 days. As reported by the New York Times:
“The governor penned that statement himself,” Alphonso David, Mr. Cuomo’s counsel, said in an interview. “He was extremely alarmed and disappointed that there was this amount of abuse and mismanagement.”
Mr. Cuomo’s directive seemed like a resumption of the battle he waged during the budget process this year, when he proposed shifting some $485 million in CUNY’s costs to New York City from the state, which has paid the largest part of the university’s costs since the city’s fiscal crisis in the 1970s. That created a backlash amid a continuing tug-of-war with Mayor Bill de Blasio. While Mr. Cuomo eventually backed off, he insisted on bringing in a management consultant to help reduce what state officials called CUNY’s high administrative costs.
Since then, an unfolding scandal at the City College of New York, and a new bloc of politically prominent trustees that Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, recently appointed, have given him new leverage.
And as he prepares to unveil a new budget early next year, the governor may be further emboldened by yet another development: a letter, obtained this week by The New York Times, in which a lawyer for Lisa S. Coico, the former City College president who resigned amid investigations of her use of university funds to pay personal expenses, blames top CUNY administrators for her woes. The letter was addressed to James B. Milliken, the CUNY chancellor who, along with Frederick P. Schaffer, CUNY’s general counsel and senior vice chancellor for legal affairs, was criticized in the inspector general’s report.
Mr. Cuomo “plays a long-term game, and what he does, in case after case, is use scandal to centralize power in the name of good government,” Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at CUNY’s Hunter College, said. “So I could almost see his reaction to CUNY being, ‘Ah, this was what I was waiting for.’”
It does not hurt, Professor Sherrill added, that CUNY’s problems could help divert attention from the scandal at the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, part of what federal prosecutors say was a broader corruption scheme — one that hits Mr. Cuomo much closer to home.
In many ways, the crisis at CUNY, the largest public urban university in the country, dovetails with Mr. Cuomo’s larger goal of streamlining government, said Gerald Benjamin, a professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz. In 2012, for instance, the state established a Business Services Center to centralize human resources and finance operations for its agencies; in 2015, Mr. Cuomo sought to consolidate back-office operations at CUNY and SUNY, but got little support from the State Legislature.”
With the budget season approaching in the new year, it is going to be a rocky 2017 for public higher education in New York.