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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