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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Matthew Goldstein

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-16

As a famous mathematician, Matthew Goldstein is, naturally, familiar with a fecundity of formulae.

But as chancellor of the City University of New York, Mr. Goldstein abides by only one enduring formula: "Encourage competition, embrace smart people, and expand collaboration."

Mr. Goldstein has done well by that formula at what's arguably America's most prominent public education system, with 450,000 students and 6,600 faculty members housed in 380 buildings, and an annual operating budget of $2 billion.

Indeed, Mr. Goldstein is less a chancellor than a chief executive officer - a designation that he says is relevant, not the least because it conveys the task at hand.

As with a corporate CEO, that task has a multiplicity of aspects. It involves raising resources - Mr. Goldstein has a $1.2 billion campaign, and has already brought in $750 million. It involves managing a sprawling system of some 20 colleges strewn across the city's five boroughs. It involves dealing with 23 institutional presidents and presiding deans - many of them with competing claims for funds and students. And it involves sensitive collaboration with a 17-member board consisting of high powered names.

Perhaps the toughest aspect of Mr. Goldstein's task is sustaining the success that he has registered in his first seven years as chancellor.

"When I came to CUNY, I found that it was organized in a way that didn't allow the system to realize its potential," Mr. Goldstein said. "The funding was fragile. The governance structure was highly political. I was determined not only to streamline the system; I set out to transform CUNY into the best educational institution in America."

Coming from someone else, that might sound sententious. But Mr. Goldstein, a product of Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan's Lower East Side, instinctively understands the importance of implementing change without depriving others of their dignity. As a child, he witnessed his father, Philip, and mother Anne, struggling to make ends meet. He also witnessed his father's eventual success in the men's wear industry - a tribute to his persistence and plucky spirit.

The father clearly relayed those characteristics to his two sons, Matthew and Steven.

"I never give up," the chancellor said.

At CUNY, that meant unscrambling the alphabet soup of administration. Mr. Goldstein found that every institutional president was paid the same, regardless of experience or the size of the college. Some college chieftains took autonomy to the point of reckless independence.

"I said, 'This is nuts!'" Mr. Goldstein said.

So he replaced most of the 23 heads of CUNY's various institutions. He also ensured that the officials reported to him, rather than directly to the board. And he decided that the chancellor would conduct all job-performance reviews, and also set compensation levels.

"The changes that occurred were rather startling. We had to make bold changes. Just chipping away at the edges wasn't going to do it," Mr. Goldstein said. "I knew from my very first day at CUNY that it was important to plot seriously for reform."

In such plotting, he found a kindred spirit in the board's chairman, Benno Schmidt Jr., formerly president of Yale University, and dean of the Columbia University School of Law. Indeed, many of Mr. Goldstein's reforms were driven by the recommendations that Mr. Schmidt had made in a report in June 1999, three months before the chancellor started at CUNY.

His arrival had been preceded by much buzz. Mr. Goldstein had distinguished himself earlier as president of Adelphi University, where he reformed an institution troubled by a plethora of administrative and other woes. He had also served as president of Baruch College, where he significantly expanded the faculty, facilities and curriculum.

Mr. Goldstein - who's married to the architect Maggie Sedlis, with whom he has two sons, Brian and Seth - had also distinguished himself as an academician and writer at institutions such as Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, and Cooper Union in Manhattan. And even earlier, as an undergraduate student at City College, and then a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut, his talent for high mathematics was widely recognized.

"I understood early the value of working in an environment where there are very smart people," Mr. Goldstein said. "I also learned that the best plans can go awry if there isn't the appropriate collaboration."

He also learned the value of straight talk. Indeed, it was a blunt assessment of an academic program that he'd given at one institution that led to an invitation to make the transition from an academician to an administrator.

And as an administrator, Mr. Goldstein learned the value of expanding his constituencies. For example, while at CUNY's Research Foundation, he strengthened ties with the corporate community; he increased revenues from consultancies to $180 million from $40 million during his tenure.

His dealings with the corporate community enhanced his conviction that academic institutions, as much as private-sector companies, can benefit from competition.

Thus, Mr. Goldstein established an honors college at CUNY, to which 3,175 students applied last year for an incoming class of 340. The college has 1,200 enrolled students, who get free tuition, plus an annual stipend. (For most other students, the annual tuition at CUNY is $4,000.) Another bonus is that students also get to spend time overseas; and they get a "cultural passport" - laminated cards that assure free admission to some of New York's finest museums and other cultural institutions.

"I have always thought about how an academic institution creates an environment that attracts especially talented students," Mr. Goldstein said, noting that 30% of his honors-college graduates this year qualified for the honor society, Phi Beta Kappa.

As part of his effort to expand the opportunities at CUNY for talented students, Mr. Goldstein started the School of Professional Studies.

"The idea was to create a school that was nimble and responsive to the needs of the marketplace," he said. "The idea was to develop custom-designed material for students so that they could make a direct transition to specific jobs."

His list of innovations is seemingly endless. There is, for instance, a new baccalaureate online degree program to assist CUNY students who may have left ahead of graduation on account of adverse economic circumstances. (Since 1995, some 60,000 such students completed many courses but did not gain enough credits to graduate.) There are exchange programs with several foreign universities.

"At a university of this size, constant vigil is needed," Mr. Goldstein said. "I've spent my time getting fundamentals right. But we're not there yet. It's been tough to change the topology of such a large urban university. We're not Harvard, but then neither should we be. There's still a lot to do. And while there'll always be naysayers, the important thing is, people believe in the institution again."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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