On Graduation

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

If you’ve never been to a CCNY graduation, you should come. All graduations are joyous events; all graduations affect transitions between years of preparation and a world rife with new possibilities.  And, I’ll admit that it’s been years since I’ve attended a graduation that did not take place on a CUNY campus—but I still think our graduations are different.

I think they’re different because they’re filled with young people rewriting their entire family history.  When you wander around after a Colin Powell School graduation ceremony, you’re surrounded by parents who’ve sent sons and daughters into a world they didn’t understand and couldn’t explain to their children.  For many it may feel like a huge gamble: will their children grow unfamiliar to them, alienated from home and culture? Will the embrace of an education build walls, or create ladders? Will a child’s opportunity be a family’s loss? Despite the risks and doubts, or perhaps because of them, students and families arrive at graduation day as to a new continent they never thought they’d reach.  The air is spiced with their joy.

I think they’re different, too, because CCNY is so different.  Our students carry within themselves the memories of nagging doubt of being somehow the odd person out on a college campus.  Worries about belonging hover close at hand: the gnawing fear that somehow this new life, tantalizingly close, was not actually meant for them, that some mistake had been made, somewhere along the line, and at any moment, they might be discovered to be an imposter.  In our campus, they find a place where that doubt fades because everybody belongs, where every experience or perspective is given the respect of a full consideration, where student grow into the life of the mind, rather than inheriting it as a birthright. They create community and a sense of place from people who yearn for our specific community, in our particular place.

And by graduation day, most of our students are keenly aware that they are going into a world that will not be the same as the one they inhabited at CCNY.  The world of our campus, in all its breadth and multifaceted-ness, is still a dawning promise, a world of the future. But graduates also know that they are marked by their time together, and so they leave with a keen awareness of themselves—I think—as emissaries of that better place. At the Colin Powell School (but elsewhere at CCNY) we are explicit about these matters, about the usefulness of building a model for how to live that will be a training ground and a touchstone for the rest of life.

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about how public higher education is supported in these times: how it is valued, regarded, funded, and evaluated. Graduation, every year, makes me think our metrics, most of the time, are all wrong. Our students fill the world each year with something unique: with testimony to the continuing currency of democracy’s promise to all of its citizens, a promise not just about the prospects of opportunity and mobility, but about the currency of that success: that it will be authentic to a citizen’s lived experience and perspective. The American dream doesn’t require families to lose their children to another world.  The American dream makes room for us all, just as we are.

It’s frustrating that those defunding public higher education seem nowhere to grasp the enormity of what might be lost when you choke off places like CCNY. We write about it all the time, often in terms of changing class sizes, or denuded infrastructure, or the shifting balance between full-time and adjunct instruction. But it must also be accounted for in terms of a particular disregard for the specific civic contribution one makes in creating and nurturing a place devoted to everyone’s future. For if the loss of funds impacts our campus and its works, the realization of that disregard cuts more deeply.  Our student carry it around with them, seeing it in every broken thing deemed good enough for them. They understand it in the difference between the world they would make together, and the world they will enter when they leave campus, and with that understanding and mixed into their joy, there is also a kind of defiance, and a commitment to succeed.  And that, too, makes our graduations unique.

If you’ve never been to a CCNY graduation, you should most definitely come.



The Public University: Seeing the Whole Picture

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School

What does it mean to be a public university? For decades, there were two distinct definitions—so bound together that when they became estranged, nobody seemed at first to notice.

On the one hand, public education referred to a finance model in which citizens and government officials pledged support for those working in its schools, and so allocated money from public coffers for that purpose. Students in public universities could expect to pay less for their tuition, and people living in states and cities anticipated supporting that education through their tax expenditures.

A second meaning evoked broader and more soaring ambitions and, for generations, the American public understood that the university system was the greatest of equalizers. Universities helped construct just and prosperous societies; they shored up the foundations of democracy; they contributed insight that helped us resolve some of our most pressing social issues. These universities existed at the intersection of our collective need to be smarter, and our egalitarian inclination to seek progress in the aggregate, to rise or fall as one people. Everyone, in this view, had a stake in the vitality of public universities.

But this collective understanding didn’t hold. In discussions about the role of public education, there was soon confusion—not with what public education was for, but with who it was for.

People began approaching public education with suspicion. Misplaced concerns about undeserved individual entitlement began to shoulder aside our original aspirations. We began to equate support for public education as essentially the transfer of resources with individual students—beneficiaries of largess—and began speculating on who among them, as individuals or categories, deserved that support. This is an impoverished and narrowly calculating formula that no longer allows for a deeper sense of social purpose. In essence, places like City College were forced to revisit our most important founding discussion, first broached in 1847: Was a university education for the elite only, or for everyone?

We founded the Colin Powell School after a decade of building out scholarship and fellowship programs that recognized the great potential and outstanding achievements of some of our very best students. As we did so, we hoped both to provide for them in extraordinary ways what others receive as a matter of course, and to suggest the potential of so many outside of these programs. It was good work. But we moved from programming that centered on a collection of leadership programs to a school serving over 2,600 students because those opportunities should not have been extraordinary—but rather the routine provision of a public education institution that functioned as it was originally intended. Building out this capacity is the current and great task of our school.

We must reframe discussions on the costs of the public university. A crucial starting point is that any conception of public that separates beneficiaries from the social whole is inadequate. Cutting financial support for public institutions results in higher social costs of living in a place where opportunities are hoarded and prospects for advancement seem dim and distant. We measure those costs in violence, in hopelessness, in sickness and insecurity. We measure them in the widening spaces between those who are privileged and those who are not—in de facto economic re-segregation, in under-employment, in achievement gaps and school-to-prison pipelines. We measure them, as well, in the horrible certainty that vast stores of talent, generation upon generation, lie wasted.

We are, in fact, in the middle of a great crisis in our ability to think of ourselves as a whole people, and to plan for the prosperity of that whole. Over the past decades, the decay of the middle class has not happened in isolation—it has taken place in direct relationship to the decay of visionary institutions set up to create and nurture the middle class.

As state budgets around the nation are cut, often the first thing that is affected are our schools. The way forward cannot be assembled from so-called merit-based programs, designed to reward individuals over ostensibly less talented or deserving peers. Opportunity should not be a prize or an award, but a basic provision of our systems and institutions.

In blog posts to come, I’ll be exploring the way this mission plays out at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, building on this discussion of why we should care about public education in the first place. We’ll look at what happens within the walls of our school, how and when students begin to make sense of the college setting, and the myriad ways in which they sometimes don’t. We’ll also explore some of the other, broader purposes of the public university, including its capacity to speak in particularly necessary ways on some of the most important questions that confound our nation. We’ll also look at the legacy of public education on our social fabric and the ways that things may have shifted. In the end, I’ll discuss what we're working to achieve at the Colin Powell School--to maintain the truest vision of public education in an environment grown increasingly hostile to our founding purposes.