Strategic Planning for the Apocalypse

“More than any other time in history mankind faces a crossroad.  One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other, to total extinction.  Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

—–Woody Allen

There have been many “doom and gloomsters” forecasting the “end of the world” as we know it; nothing new with that. Except, this time it seems different, with more credibility, more urgency, more evidence (link).

Is there a new wind blowing or maybe an unanticipated hurricane? Are the foundations of our culture shaking, or maybe it’s an earthquake? Is the water rising above our collective heads or is it a tsunami? Are those Northern Lights we’re seeing in the sky, or a precursor of powerful solar flares (capable of knocking out our electrical grid)? Are we recovering from a “double-dip” recession or entering into an economic abyss? Am I feeling a bit dizzy or is it the tipping of yet another  “tipping point”  (with cataclysmic environmental consequences to come)? These are real and valid concerns offered reputable people providing these warnings.

I’m in a strange place these days—seeing life as we’re come to expect it—potentially hanging by threads. Institutions that seemed to function well in the past, have betrayed us. A medical system that often harms as much as it heals (video); and education system that teaches but fails students with real learning (book); a press that seem less and less inclined to do real investigative reporting on issues critical to our survival; a financial system that rewards speculation and Ponzi schemes while it creates disincentives for savings; a food production system that turns food into a commodity to manipulate via genetic engineering, irradiation, pesticides, additives etc…. Few institutions have escaped the greed, dodged the expedient, or avoided the compromises, and as a society, we are worse off for it.

Can we, should we, plan intelligently for a catastrophe? Do we have contingency plans in place both individually and collectively or will we be “watching Katrina” as disaster approaches? I can’t say with any certainly that such calamities will come to fruition, but I am starting to think more seriously about having a backup plan. For some such planning may mean having silver and gold coins or storing extra cash, for others it might mean being self-sufficient regarding food or going off the grid; selling property and heading for the hills or remote areas. As troubling as this sounds, many conscientious people are starting to think in these terms. As the saying goes, “hope for the best, but plan for the worst.” So, let’s all wish each other luck, as we do some strategic planning for the apocalypse.

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Lessons Learned: Departure of a CUNY President

Note: The contents of this post is solely my views for which I take responsibility. Although I am far from objective on this matter, I do share a viewpoint, not often expressed, that needs to be heard.

After over 6 years of her tenure as President of City College, Lisa Coico has resigned after a series of NY Times articles –the last two cited here.

October 10, 2016  and October 7, 2016.

What follows is some reflections/observations on her tenure and circumstances surrounding her resignation.

CUNY Central Does Nothing

More than any takeaway from this sorry affair, has been the lax, negligent “oversight” by the Chancellor and the CUNY Board of Trustees in handling President Lisa’s tenure at CCNY. Literally from the first month of coming to CCNY, she summarily fired a dozen workers in the Financial Aid Office because she found the lines too long, the Central office was on notice that something was not right with this President. Apparently this initial incident, neither her excessive hiring of cronies and consultants she had associations with, nor her arbitrary and capricious decisions, nor her inability to bring in monies from donors had any impact on her 5-year review.  Instead, it took seven articles in the NY Times (references below)–an unprecedented amount of negative publicity for any university–and an ongoing investigation from several federal and state bodies, to finally do what needed doing many years ago. CUNY management was informed numerous times through informal channels prior to any articles hitting the press, yet chose to do nothing. This is a black eye for CUNY management, Chancellor Milliken, and the CUNY Board of Trustees.  Shame on all of you.

Tenured Faculty Do Nothing

City College has approximately 700 tenured faculty and double that for adjunct faculty. With a few exceptions they did nothing tangible to oppose this administration. At a most recent Faculty Senate meeting (before the latest 2 articles, but after 2 initial articles) most faculty attending were mute in the presence of President Coico.

I have lost any hope that tenured faculty can play any balancing role in situations like these.  In the many years of mismanagement and malfeasance from this administration, never once did faculty governance step in with a vote of no confidence for Lisa’s administration. Instead, they were bought off by various perks and incentives that most administrations have the discretion over doling out to their political favorites. Faculty governance is suppose to act in the best interests of the institution, hence one of the main rationales for tenure. Instead, faculty governance is truly a toothless watchdog in these situations. Tenured faculty clearly know which side their bread is buttered on, and despite protestations to the contrary, once tenured, most faculty will adapt to any administration, no matter have bad as long as they can continue their cushy positions.  Shame on all of you.

Union: Not Part of Oversight Process

I generally admire Barbara Bowen, the President of PSC-CUNY, the faculty/staff union for all of CUNY.  After 7 years of not having a contract, this past summer a contract was signed whereby members received a 10% raise over that period.  Given the sad state of affairs for most public employees these days, this was seen as a successful outcome to a very difficult process. After the contract was settled, Barbara made an appearance at a September union meeting held at City College.  While most of the questions dealt with the specifics of the new contract, I asked a question about whether there was a role for PSC-CUNY in opposing and scrutinizing the administrative appointments and administrative bloat on campuses.

My thinking is that given a zero-sum scenario, political appointments and cronyism deprive institutions of needed staff and faculty appointments and incentives.  She admitted the union currently does not play such an oversight role, although it might file a Freedom Of Information request to obtain records of upper management appointments at the college. In my estimation, the excesses and Coico’s administration and it’s impact on all those who work at City College were equally important as “bread and butter” issues to the well-being of employees.  If unions cannot have a seat at the management table in a meaningful way, it increases the lack of accountability that this and other CUNY administrations can get away with, and the amount of time that any meaningful push-back can happen,

Staff Push-back Gets it Done

In my almost 40 years working for various private and public institutions, I have not witnessed staff morale to be as bad as it is at CCNY. Many of the most senior staff, myself included, have been marginalized, de-funded, de-staffed and either ignored or treated with general contempt by the Coico administration.  Not surprisingly, some of the best staffers have left CCNY for other CUNY colleges, while others suffer in silence, waiting in vain for CUNY to come to its senses.

Instead, a myriad of bad management practices and decisions, (including political appointees and cronyism) in the past years have alienated some of the best people working at City College. More than any other factor, it was a group of those alienated staff persons that finally said “enough is enough” and went to the press for addressing this gross incompetence and illegality. Kudos for those courageous staffers that did successfully push-back– albeit too late in the game to salvage CCNY’s reputation or prevent many good people from leaving City College.

Closing Thoughts

What happened at City is merely a microcosm of what happens in any organization with little accountability and oversight. There will always be bad actors in high places, but how are their excesses checked? Let CCNY be Exhibit A in this regard.  As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that has.”

It will take several years to get new leadership installed and running at CCNY, and even more time to remove the vestiges of Coico’s mismanagement team.  Changing the gestalt of this institution will be like turning around an ocean liner–a slow and deliberate process at best–even assuming that good management will be appointed to replace this regime. What CUNY Central, CCNY faculty and staff might reflect upon is what has been lost by this 6-year fiasco? Those resources and time wasted and employees alienated, will never be able to be productively utilized. Ultimately the students suffer. Shame on all those who let this sorry state of affairs continue as long as it did.


Chen, D. (2016), “Dreams Stall at CUNY, New York City’s Engine of Mobility, Sputters,” (May 28, 2016), Retrieved at:

Chen, D. (2016), “Finances of City College’s President Under Federal Investigation,” July 14, 2016, Retrieved at:

Chen, D. (2016), “$76 Where There Should be $600,00: Missing City College Donation Prompts Inquiry,” August 30, 2016, Retrieved at:

Chen, D. (2016), “City Colege Leader Didn’t Misuse Donation Study Finds,” September 15, 2016, Retrieved at:

Chen, D. (2016), “President of City College Quits Abruptly After Scrutiny of Her Finances,” (October 7, 2016), Retrieved at:

Chen, D. (2016), “A Divisive President of City College, and a Long List of Personal Expenses,” October 10, 2016, Retrieved at:

Chen, D. (2016), “City College Gets Interim Leader After President’s Sudden Exit,” November 2, 2016, Retrieved at:


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Winner Take All @ CUNY

The City University of New York has a long and noteworthy history of providing excellent education to children of New York’s working and middle class.  Founded over 100 years ago (1847) as the Free Academy, its mission, as stated by its founder–

“Open the doors to all. Let the children of the rich and poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct, and intellect.”  Townsend Harris (citation in References)

That sentiment was confirmed by the Free Academy’s first president–

“The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.”
Dr. Horace Webster  (citation in References)

In many public speeches. Chancellor Milliken, and most CUNY campus presidents acknowledge that history and the special role this university has as the largest urban public university in the country. We have a diverse student body from countries throughout the world, and a tuition structure that is still highly affordable even with recent increases in tuition. Undoubtedly, a student from a low-income family can receive an excellent education at CUNY, and not incur much debt in comparison to alternative institutions. To a large extent, Townsend Harris’ vision has been largely preserved for over a century, a significant accomplishment for this university.

CUNY Academic Robber Barons

Although many of the top CUNY administrators and presidents give lip service to CUNY’s historic mission, increasingly they are acting like academic robber barons. Despite being employed at a public university, with most students receiving tuition assistance to make ends meet, more than a handful of these executives live like a conquering army, richly rewarding themselves, consultants and cronies with very little oversight from CUNY Central or the CUNY Board of Trustees. In addition to executive pay packages that are regularly abused, many receive chauffeurs, expensive townhouses, expense accounts, personal assistants and numerous other perks befitting a corporate executive.

To make matters worse, CUNY management may increase their compensation by using the following tactics:

  • Steering grants designated for other purposes to fund their own projects, people, and/or take a cut by becoming a PI on the grant (that they did not write)
  • Creating dual appointments e.g., a Provost also being a college dean, or acting dean
  • Hiring their friends/associates for staff positions or consultant gigs
  • Billing personal items/services under existing programs
  • Securing large raises for dubious performance
  • Exploiting travel and conference privileges ….

These are just some of the methods,  too numerous to mention. In some cases, the abuse is so outlandish and endemic, that a college president must be removed (link) but this is a rarity for the most part. Instead, it is typical for top CUNY management not to be held accountable despite years of mismanagement, malfeasance, and cronyism, and only be checked after the situation reaches scandalous proportions or is reported in the media.

The Academic Divide

It is a sad reflection on top CUNY management that this “winner take all” attitude on the part of many of its top people is not addressed.  As disturbing is the academic stratification taking between the “in versus out” groups within CUNY itself. In his brilliant blog post entitled, “How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang,” Alexander Alfonso argues that in a manner similar to the disparity of the top drug lords getting most of the economic pie, increasingly academic markets are reflecting this societal trend.

With a constant supply of new low-level drug sellers entering the market and ready to be exploited, drug lords can become increasingly rich without needing to distribute their wealth towards the bottom. You have an expanding mass of rank-and-file “outsiders” ready to forgo income for future wealth, and a small core of “insiders”  securing incomes largely at the expense of the mass. We can call it a winner-take-all market…

The academic job market is structured in many respects like a drug gang, with an expanding mass of outsiders and a shrinking core  of insiders. Even if the probability that you might get shot in academia is relatively small, one can observe similar dynamics. Academia is only a somewhat extreme example of this trend, but it affects labour markets virtually everywhere. One of the hot topics in labour market research at the moment is what we call “dualisation”[3]. Dualisation is the strengthening of this divide between insiders in secure, stable employment and outsiders in fixed-term, precarious employment. Academic systems more or less everywhere rely at least to some extent on the existence of a supply of “outsiders” ready to forgo wages and employment security in exchange for the prospect of uncertain security, prestige, freedom and reasonably high salaries that tenured positions entail[4]. (see reference below)

Contingent labor is reflected in the plight of adjunct faculty who typically make $3000 per course they teach. If they teach several courses for two or more semesters, they are entitled to basic health insurance.  However, given budgetary shortfalls at City College, for example, many adjuncts had their courses dropped and, with it, their health benefits. With hundreds of adjuncts teaching per campus, they may teach up to 40% or more of all courses.  Yet, their benefits, respect and perks are minimal.  Such inequities subsidize the largess of CUNY’s top administrators. A quick calculation of the annual compensation for a top CUNY administrator versus an adjunct professor would easily come up with a 400:1 ratio (or more). This is truly a Tale of Two Cities; the best of times for CUNY royalty, the worst of times and for CUNY’s contingent workforce.  Is this what Townsend had in mind when he founded this great institution? A day of reckoning needs to happen regarding these gross inequities.

In Part 2 of Winner Take All @ CUNY, I will delve into this issue of how students are impacted by such trends.


Afonso, A. (n.d.) “How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang.” Blog post retrieved at:

“Our History,” City College, CUNY website. Retrieved Feb 29th, 2016 at:

Fenwick, B., (2011)  “Eye on America: Working with and within a winner-take-all competitive system.”  Retrieved from: COLLABORATION | VOLUME 1, ISSUE 1 – 2011

Williams, J. (2013), “The Great Stratification,” The Chronicle Review, December, 2013, Retrieved at:

Woolston, C., (2014), “Winner takes all in science.” Nature, 510,11, (05 June 2014), retrieved from:

Note: The NY Times published two articles several months after this post came out which touched on some of these themes.

Chen, D. (2016), “Dreams Stall at CUNY, New York City’s Engine of Mobility, Sputters,” (May 28, 2016), Retrieved at:

Chen, D. (2016), “Finances of City College’s President Under Federal Investigation,” July 14, 2016, Retrieved at:



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Technologically Adrift?

In many posts I have criticized what I would characterize as CUNY’s “institutional drift.” Departing chancellors take several years to leave, followed by an interim administration of a year or more, followed by a new administration taking many years to come up with any real vision for CUNY. The area of technology, and specifically, online learning (the focus of this blog)  has been Exhibit A in terms of this “drift”.  This is not to say there aren’t excellent technologists at CUNY–there are many, and most are dedicated to this institution.  However, there has been an overall management void that, in my estimation, borders on gross neglect and mismanagement. What follows is a list of several areas CUNY is found wanting.

A. Central Online Vision

Simply stated, there is no vision for online learning within CUNY.  While Chancellor Milliken might provide sound-bites in speeches, there has been no real vision for all of CUNY regarding online learning despite his record of success with online at his previous institution. In essence then, 23 campuses are allowed to pursue their own path with a minimum of oversight from CUNY Central. In a previous blog, I used the sports metaphor of a football lining up on one side of the ball, while the other team’s players scattered all over, without anyone organizing the players.  In an online competitive environment, which team will likely win?

B. Online Policies, Procedures, Systems

Although some campuses have an online policy manual, many don’t. Those who do not, often have administrations lacking any real understanding of online learning. I often get asked if there are any limits on the number of students in online classes, or the minimum number of times that a hybrid class must meet to be considered hybrid.  My response is that there are no policies, procedures or systems that are currently in place regarding online learning, therefore, if your department chair approves, it’s OK for now.  Many administrators don’t realize the need for such policies, and lacking any guidance from CUNY Central, there are none. In a previous post, I have posed 20+ policy concerns or questions that need to be addressed prior to offering hybrid/online courses. A CUNY campus that proceeds down the online trail without such policies, is starting the journey without a map.

C. The Sea of Instructional Technologies

An institution the size of CUNY needs to have paid staff whose responsibility it is to convene  a team of evaluators to make recommendations regarding software for use on the campuses.  Failing such a team, and the resources to make it successful, this task often falls on the Centers for Teaching and Learning, or IT offices– each not up to properly doing the job. I believe that such teams–like Penn State “hot teams”— can be very useful in guiding purchasing decisions at campuses, or at worst, helping to whittle down the deluge of choices that confronts front-line managers. Instead, often salespersons at conferences or making sales calls, get to pitch their products to those who don’t have the context or authority with which to make a legitimate choice regarding allocation of limited resources. Although the CUNY Committee on Academic Technology has tried to play a role with reviewing some technologies, there is no budgetary support, and so these ad-hoc efforts have been sporadic, if non-existent for new instructional technologies.

D. Strategic Planning

Although a recurring theme over many years in this blog, I now understand that such planning concerning online learning will probably never happen at CUNY. It won’t happen for a myriad of reasons including lack of understanding the need, lack of understanding the means, lack of institutional support and lack of a clear vision to which such a strategic plan might be applied. Instead, CUNY will drift from academic year to academic year, making pronouncements about “Digital CUNY” without any substance or commitment to achieve it. This is in sharp contrast to SUNY, our sister institution, that has a clear system-wide online policy and implementation plan which I discussed in several posts (post 1) (post 2) (post 3)

E. Faculty Buy-In

Early articles in journals about online learning clearly pointed out that faculty resistance was the number one impediment to the adoption of online at many institutions. For the most part, the Sloan-C reports showed that administrators were a lot more enthusiastic about the potential for online than their respective faculty members. As online has gradually become increasingly accepted across academia, faculty resistance has lessened, although online is still far from being embraced.

At CUNY, faculty resistance was, and still continues to be, an issue impeding online implementation. Whether grudging acceptance, or outright resistance, CUNY full-time faculty by and large have not “gotten with the program” for online teaching. Both CUNY Central and many campuses refuse to directly address the critical issue of faculty buy-in needed for online to be successful. As a result, the heavy lifting needed for a successful online implementation falls to IT or CTL staff, who do not have the clout to make things happen.

Even in the best of circumstances, with the full support of the Provost, full-time faculty may chose to balk at any initiative that smacks of a administrative directive. I saw first-hand at an open Faculty Senate meeting, CCNY faculty pass a resolution about 5 years ago, labeling courses taught in hybrid mode as “experimental” and requiring a Senate review after 2 years. A mere two years later, with CCNY hovering at at the basement of senior colleges in this area with 1% of courses in hybrid/online mode, and likely feeling the Performance Management heat from those dismal numbers, the college president decides to create a “faculty-driven” online program. Of the approximately 45 instructors enrolled in that program, maybe a handful ever realized a hybrid or online course. Followed by that success, the college’s only real instructional technologist with expertise in hybrid/online, is terminated from a grant. That same administration recently receives a new $700K grant from CUNY Central to begin planning two new online programs….

——–   ———    ——–

In the next post, I will explore the relationship between top administrators salaries versus those of adjunct instructors employed at CUNY, and the “winner take all” atmosphere prevalent in today’s society.


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CUNY Managerial Scorecard: Best Practices or Best Practiced Again?

There has been a great deal of heated debated over Amazon’s management practices as reported in the August 15, 2015 New York Times (link here). The Gallop organization reviewed the article and followed it up with an intriguing analysis (link here). Both pieces go to the heart of issues around motivating employees, promoting organization excellence and good management practice.

The NY Times article chronicles Amazon’s very strict measurement of any and all performance indicators on the part of employees and management alike. Everything is subject to being questioned, tested, and improved including practices, policies and systems essential to making the company run better and more efficiently. The question I have is, “What can CUNY learn from these and other management practice?” I believe there are many potential lessons to be learned; some of these are outlined below.


In the NY Times article paints a picture of “extreme accountability” for each and every Amazon employee. Invariably, as the writers imply, this practice, taken to an extreme, can cause much stress in the workforce, and significant turnover. It remains a question as to whether those who leave the hothouse competitive atmosphere at Amazon could have been valued contributors over the long run. However, the Times article does point out those ex-Amazon staffers are highly regarded and often quickly hired by other companies in the tech field.

In my estimation (and from an admittedly biased perspective) I would contend that at CUNY is severely lacking in this area. I do not qualify that statement. I have seen institutional drift and ineptitude both university-wide and at specific campuses. This mismanagement is allowed to go on for years, seemingly without any checks or balances being exerted from faculty governance, CUNY Central and Chancellor, PSC-CUNY or any other body. Instead, despite many occasions of demonstrated incompetence and malfeasance, the status quo is allowed to fester, leaving staff, faculty and students the worse off for it. In all my years working at about a dozen different work settings (both private and public) I have never seen staff a so completely disillusioned and demoralize as currently exists.   This symptom is largely attributable to a management accountability vacuum at many campuses.

Communication of Mission

The Gallop article clearly lays out the importance of communication of mission in any organization.

Our research indicates that an organization’s mission or purpose must be communicated from the top down — and that when leaders prioritize ongoing communication, the outcomes are powerful. The way a company’s leaders define, display and disseminate an organization’s purpose and brand influences whether employees embody those values, especially with customers. Great leaders clearly and consistently communicate where the organization has been and where it is going, helping employees to know what’s expected of them and to see their role as more than just a job.” (Gallop report, par. 8, reference below).

A close second to lack of accountability at CUNY is the lack of communicating the mission clearly and effectively to all stakeholders. While management is good at occasional PR announcements that so –and- so won a grant or such college was ranked well etc., what is missing is a compelling vision of where we are going as an institution and as a campus. As indicated in the quote above, such communication is essential for providing guidance and context to employees, and enabling them to see their roles in a larger context. This is a dereliction of managerial responsibility that is quite shocking to me. I should note that the School of Professional Studies, the exception to the rule, does have very positive, proactive, and context-providing communications from their Dean John Mogulescu (CUNY Senior Dean of Academic Affairs) and others in that organization. Their example needs to be studied by other campuses, and learned from.

In a future post, I will address strategic planning for instructional technologies and online learning.


Rigoni, B., & Nelson, B., (2015) “What Amazon Gets Right,” Gallop Topics, Retrieved on October 15, 2015, from

Kantor, J., Streitfeld, D., (2015) “ Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” NY Times, August 15, 2015. Retrieved from:

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CUNY Libraries: Old Paradigms or a Digital Future?

It is not saying much to state that libraries currently are going through major challenges in the digital age.  Library attendance has been trending down for over a decade as users abandon the stuffy recesses of the stacks for the flash and utility of their digital devices. How can libraries stay relevant given the onslaught of digital media, social networks, and ubiquitous access to information? In a word, many are not.

When a library refuses to embrace the digital challenge, students vote with their feet and stop visiting and using the libraries.  Increasingly, the primary usage for many libraries within CUNY and elsewhere is mainly students using the computers for non-library, non-research work. The library as a “glorified computer lab” trend is virtually epidemic in most colleges as these static institutions become increasingly irrelevant in the minds of students and even faculty.

Let’s be honest here– libraries are the last office on most campuses where one would expect real innovation. Library personnel often have positions that are secure, regardless of whether they keep current with digital trends or not.  With librarians at CUNY getting tenure after publishing a few peer-reviewed articles, many chose to coast the rest of their careers since accountability in these positions is virtually non- existent. I’ve heard many reports of search committees hiring a candidate that “would not rock the boat” while rejecting a more qualified and digitally knowledgeable person.  If the norm is mediocrity, then can such behavior be expected?

Yet, libraries vigorously fight to fend off efforts to use their space for more productive purposes. It is comical, if not tragic, to see rows and rows of dusty stacks being defended as critical to library operations when there is no student or faculty who would reasonably peruse the contents of any volume on those shelves.  But instead of re-envisioning what a new library might look like, these rear-guard turf-wars become commonplace at many CUNY libraries.

But the tide is turning, if not merely for the fact that space is at a premium at campuses.  So under-utilized space now gets more scrutiny, albeit after decades of neglect. For the most part, change will not come from current library personnel themselves whom hold tenaciously to old paradigms and procedures. No, change will by necessity come from the administrations of respective campuses, assuming there is a real vision for change.  To date, many campus administrators have not measured up in this respect.

A Digital Future

What would change look like for college libraries?  While there are articles about new campus libraries without any books, this is an extreme scenario.  More likely, college libraries are transforming themselves by:

  • Hiring chief librarians with bona fide digital credentials and a new vision for what those libraries can become
  • Gathering campus stakeholders for sessions to re-envision campus libraries
  • Funding training to upgrade the skills of existing staff to function in the digital age
  • Collaborating with IT service desk operations to offer a one-stop desk for any problems relating to student technology or information needs
  • Training students in new digital and information technologies as part of their new mission
  • Expanding the standard “information literacy” sessions for students to include a broader “digital literacy,” covering items like portable devices, social networking, phone apps for students, etc.

This list is merely a starting point. Given the balkanized, unionized, tenure-ized, and dysfunctional structures that exist within CUNY, nothing short of a real mandate from the Chancellor will address this issue.  As with most paradigm shifts, the entrenched actors will need to “leave the stage” before a new paradigm becomes the norm. In regards to many CUNY libraries, we are looking at a minimum of another decade before we see the long-touted “libraries for the digital age” we need now.


Blumenthal, R., (2005)  “College Libraries Set Aside Books in the Digital Age,” New York Times, May 14, 2005.  Retrieved at:

Lenkie, A.,(2015) “Libraries in the Digital Age,” NEA Blog post. Retrieved at:

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5 Ideas to Jumpstart CUNY’s Online Efforts

If I ever had the chance to meet CUNY’s new Chancellor Millikan, I would love to talk about a topic of mutual interest, namely, Online Learning. From his days as Chancellor at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Millikan has been an advocate for online learning and, I feel, genuinely wants to move online teaching and learning forward within CUNY. Consequently, what follows would be the main ideas I’d bring to him regarding “jumpstarting” CUNY’s online efforts.

1. Make CUNYfirst designations of hybrid/online uniform throughout the system.

An old adage, “what gets measured, gets done” applies here. Yet, there is no reliable way to measure hybrid/online activity within CUNY since CUNYfirst has ambiguous and overlapping categories that are used differently on different campuses. These designations include “online,” “partially online,” “hybrid,” and “web-enhanced.” Consequently, we cannot even determine with any certainty, what percentage of courses are taught online within the university. Without such information, we are steering the online ship without knowing our current bearings.

Solution: Have the Registrars and Provosts university-wide, meet to draft clear and uniform categories for hybrid/online learning (e.g., online means a course with little or no classroom time required). The Sloan-C definitions, used for over a decade, can be useful here.

2. Change PMP (Performance Management Process) reporting criteria for CUNY college presidents from “online courses” to “online programs.”

Imagine a student taking several hybrid or fully online courses as they pursue their degree.  This can be a good thing, but will not substantially change their time to degree or allow them to “time-shift” their academics around family or work responsibilities. Only fully online programs, or those programs specifically designed with sufficient hybrid and online offerings  for students, will have the impact we seek.  So why do CUNY college presidents get measured via PMP using the bar of total online or hybrid courses when their impact is minimal for students?

Solution: Include number of fully online programs in PMP measures (see report here) of college president’s effectiveness.

3. The Vision

Where is a vision for online learning within CUNY? If online teaching is important to you, as the leader of this university it is worthwhile formulating and promoting what that vision is. I believe such a   vision needs to be a bold statement of what is possible, and not a milk toast recitation of what is.

Accordingly, your recent statements that “It would be good to have all CUNY students take at least one online course before graduation,” or ” . . . with a CUNY school being a subway stop away, it is understandable that CUNY has not seen the need to develop online . . . ” should be dispensed with forthwith.  Instead, like SUNY’s chancellor, Nancy Zimpher, you might challenge your university to “enrolling 100,000 new online students within 3 years,” or planning with the inception of Open SUNY. What will be CUNY’s moonshot in this regard?

Solution: Develop and publicize a bold agenda for online learning at CUNY.

4. Is Online Strategic?

Closely related to vision, the latest Online Learning Consortium survey indicates that 80% of 4 year public colleges view online learning as strategic to their efforts.  Does CUNY? If so, this needs to be stated, and moreover, planned for at the highest levels within CUNY. Need we have a CUNY strategic plan for online learning or, jettisoning “strategic,” any university-wide plan for online within CUNY?


Choose the best representatives from CUNY who understand online teaching and learning and/or strategic planning. Create a compelling vision for online learning that all CUNY stakeholders can buy into (or at least not try to subvert).  See my blog post on this topic for ideas for such a vision.

5. CUNY Office for Online Learning

If online learning is important for the future of this university, then some central office needs to be guiding and supporting implementation of online at all CUNY campuses.  This entity currently doesn’t exist. I’ve written a blog post (link here)  as to why such an office is needed and what aspects of online learning they might be helpful with.


Plan for and create an empowered Office for Online Learning within CUNY Central to assist campuses with all aspects of rolling out online programs.


Allen, I.E., Seaman, J., (February, 2015), “Grade Level: Teaching Online Education in the United States, 2014,” Online Learning Consortium. Retrieved from:

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“Show Me the Urgency”

We all know it takes time to turn an ocean liner around. But at a large institution like CUNY, the question really is, “Why turn the ocean liner around?”  Or maybe next academic year, “we’ll look into turning the ship around.” On all levels of this institution, there seems little urgency to get things done today if they can reasonably be postponed for tomorrow (which stretches into the distant horizon). But what’s the urgency?

So, we had the long-expected departure of a long-standing, previous chancellor who was rumored to be on the way out for several years due to health issues, the appointment of an interim chancellor taking over a year while the search for the new chancellor was conducted, and the much-heralded appointment of a new chancellor last year. Of course, the new chancellor will take a year or so to acclimate to CUNY before he boldly acts on his agenda, and now we are in yet another year of “transition” until the university appoints a new vice chancellor for academic affairs, who will likely need yet another year to get acclimated.  In essence, we are speaking of a four year transition period for key positions within the university, for the persons filling those positions to establish and create their vision for CUNY’s future and to start implementing their plan. But what’s the urgency?

As crazy as the above scenario seems, that is what passes for “business as usual” at CUNY. The end result is institutional drift, poor employee moral, and program paralysis. The “let’s wait for the next academic year since we’re in a transition” refrain invariably impacts all campuses and programs within the university. If this were a business with actual accountability to investors, the new CEO would be expected to “hit the ground running” and, at most, have a few months to get oriented. We are reminded constantly that academia is not a business and shouldn’t be run as such. OK, but realistically how long should we wait until the university gets a new, effective team on the field ? But what’s the urgency?

Regarding programs of online learning, however, we are talking about a competitive marketplace where there certainly needs to be a sense of urgency. A student considering an online degree may choose a program tailored to their needs from an array of colleges in their region or even nationally. Many institutions are working hard to make sure they have enticing programs, effective marketing, student support structures and qualified instructors to meet student needs and get them to enroll. These institutions might be first to market with new programs, and with years in the marketplace gain experience with strategies that work for growing their online efforts. But, what’s the urgency?

CUNY’s UFS (University Faculty Senate) recently held a conference (link here) weighing the efficacy of this mode of teaching, a mere 30 years after the University of Wisconsin held its first conference on distance learning (link here). After decades of “deliberation,” faculty governance finally got around to addressing the issue of online learning. Admittedly, the new chancellor seems very interested in online learning and has started to hold campus presidents more accountable for hybrid/online implementation. This is a positive step considering that for many years, besides recalcitrant faculty and their respective governance bodies being opposed to online, many presidents were also of similar mind and actively spoke against online learning. Such opposition, in my estimation, has left CUNY about a decade behind SUNY in online implementation (see previous posts 1, 2, 3) and over two decades behind lead universities in this field. I would wish the new chancellor success in changing CUNY’s institutional climate toward being more positive for online learning. Until then, show me the urgency.

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Lessons Learned From John Jay Online (Part 2)


This is the second post discussing the implications from a panel discussion I moderated for the latest CUNY IT Conference in early December 2014 entitled, “Strategic Planning for Online Programs: Lessons Learned from John Jay Online.” I was fortunate to have two John Jay panelists, both instrumental in shepherding these new online programs into being: Adam Wandt, Assistant Professor of Public Policy/ Faculty Fellow of Online Learning, and Feng Weng, (formerly) Director of John Jay Online.
Note: Please refer to my original post (link) to provide a fuller context for the ensuing discussion.

Empowering the Change Makers

One of the key points that both Adam and Feng made was the need to empower the persons making change, in this case, those implementing a new online learning program. Each campus, a reflection of CUNY as an institution, has a plethora of potential stakeholders who want nothing more than to slow down, if not kill outright, any real change on their campuses. Maybe such actors feel they weren’t sufficiently consulted or kow-towed to; or  maybe they feel that it is a secret plot by the “administration”; or possibly they feel that their much discredited “sage on stage” style of teaching is perfectly fine; or maybe they are frustrated, ornery, stick-in-the mud types itching for a fight. Regardless, those seeking real change will inevitably encounter them in the sinecures of their faculty governance structures, administrative offices, departmental chairs, and often in the upper echelons of their respective campuses.

In reality, these obstructionists can add years to any sincere, valid effort to introduce hybrid/online programs. That is the reality at many CUNY campuses today. The only antidote to this scenario is for the president of a college to forcefully and unequivocally support those mandated to  make such change happen — as in the case of John Jay. This does not mean supporting a “faculty-driven” effort by those unknowing, undeserving or unable to lead such an online initiative.  It means giving the real experts — advocates of online learning — their “day in the sun” with the full support of administration to provide a protected space  and sufficient time for a new online program to incubate and new ideas, policies and practices to see the light of day.

Tenure and Promotion

It seems curious that in this digital age, with the rapid growth of social media, online learning  and digital publications, that rewards for most digital activities are completely absent from the formal avenues leading to tenure and promotion within CUNY. It is even more curious that critical legal documents in the tenure and promotion process are governed by letters of agreement dating back over 40 years (see link 1 and link 2). These documents pre-date even word processing and were obviously copied from old paper forms, yet have the force of law. In the context of online learning, it means that all the difficult, good work of an untenured faculty (like Adam Wandt) in seeing two online programs to fruition, is completely ignored in terms of tenure and promotion.

If this is the case, what is the motivation for junior faculty to create or teach an online course — especially if doing so might alienate senior faculty within the department? There is none, and in fact, there is more than a morsel of tangible disincentives. So younger faculty, who might gravitate to teaching online, need to think again, while older tenured faculty who can risk such behavior are not particularly inclined to do so since they may not be as fluent with technology or are happy with the status quo.  With such convoluted incentives and totally obsolete faculty policies, is it any wonder that CUNY is years behind other large public institutions in implementing online learning?

New Business Practices, Policies and Procedures

I had the pleasure of taking an intensive workshop on “Creating Online Programs,” co-taught by Joel Hartman, Vice Provost and CIO at the University of Central Florida. Dr. Hartman (see bio) has won just about every significant award in online learning that there is. When I mentioned to him that faculty development is often the primary focus of new online efforts, and that little thought is given to changing the policies, practices and procedures relating to online implementation, he enthusiastically confirmed, “you’ve got it!”

John Jay Online not only impacted teaching and learning at that college, but there also needed to be significant changes in policies, practices and procedures for that program to succeed.  Regarding the policies (link here), real thought was given to how online would impact course and teaching loads, payment to faculty for designing and teaching a course, a chargeback system for new online revenues to fund expansion of the Office for Online Learning, and other significant changes. Moreover, certain governance rules needed to be curtailed for the program to go forward. It is (and was) of critical importance to change many college practices and procedures and have the needed systems in place for this (or any) online program to succeed.


There are more lessons from John Jay’s online experience that are of value to other CUNY campuses. However, only those who are fully knowledgeable and experts, going through this 4+ year process,  can really speak to these lessons. After our panel discussion, I briefly proposed an idea to have such experts like Adam and Feng (and others from SPS) act as internal consultants for other CUNY campuses leaning toward starting fully online programs. By heeding their guidance, we can build institutional capacity while avoiding some of the pitfalls in developing online programs. The “O-Team” as I would call it, is a worthy project that deserves to be funded. Such a project would be a fitting and useful outcome from our excellent panel discussion and assist many CUNY campuses in implementing online learning.

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A Scalable Learning Management System (LMS)

Some of the barriers to entry into the arena of online learning have been greatly diminished in recent years, namely both the cost and scalability of the learning management system. An LMS is where most of online teaching happens — the virtual bridge between teacher and student. It is the environment where a professor structures their course, posts materials (links, PDFs, videos, etc.), creates assignments, conducts online discussions and assesses a student’s work, along with many other features. Fundamentally, it is the center for online learning created from the toolkit provided by the LMS vendor.

Blackboard, the largest LMS in the higher education market, has its critics and promoters. Over time, Bb has become more sophisticated, costly, and feature-rich. While many of these features are quite useful for teaching (i.e., wikis, whiteboards, eportfolios, webinars, etc.), costs for this and other LMS’s tend to be prohibitive, and faculty training with all the bells and whistles, daunting. Free LMS’s like Sakai and Moodle, could provide an affordable option to small entities only if you overlook the back-end technical know-how to successfully implement these systems. In either case, smaller institutions were  challenged to pursue this path.

Now, however, there are viable options for smaller entities wishing to conduct cost-effective online learning using a simple LMS. Companies like SchoolKeep, provide a customizable, affordable, easy-to-use LMS-lite for newbies in the online domain. The company offers an array of options/services from piloting several courses at no charge, to creating a fully online program and school. Moreover, SchoolKeep offers cost-added services like marketing, branding, registration, and student support depending on client requirements.

This company is a harbinger of what I would characterize as just-in-time LMS services, which may allow an institution, small company, or not-for-profit the flexibility of gradually building an online learning program without incurring significant start-up costs for the technology infrastructure. Often LMS contracts locked in an institution to a specific vendor for a long period of time, or the vendor might require a significant percentage of the online revenues from the new venture. This scenario is not the case for these new vendors who are increasingly more friendly to novices in the online learning segment.

In summary, SchoolKeep and similar new options allow a smaller entity to pilot or prototype their online courses and programs without major financial risks. A “build up and out strategy” can then be employed if these initial efforts prove fruitful. Thus, SchoolKeep might provide a good fit for those smaller learning enterprises making their initial foray into the arena of online learning.


Burns, Janet (2014), The Changing Framework of Online Learning, PSFK blog, retrieved at:

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