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: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/nyregion/dreams-stall-as-cuny-citys-engine-of-mobility-sputters.html?_r=0

Chen, D. (2016), “Finances of City College’s President Under Federal Investigation,” July 14, 2016, Retrieved at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/15/nyregion/finances-of-city-colleges-president-are-under-federal-investigation.html?_r=0

Chen, D. (2016), “$76 Where There Should be $600,00: Missing City College Donation Prompts Inquiry,” August 30, 2016, Retrieved at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/31/nyregion/76-where-there-should-be-600000-missing-city-college-donation-prompts-inquiry.html

Chen, D. (2016), “City Colege Leader Didn’t Misuse Donation Study Finds,” September 15, 2016, Retrieved at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/16/nyregion/city-college-leader-didnt-misuse-donation-review-finds.html?emc=edit_tnt_20160915&nlid=67777128&tntemail0=y

Chen, D. (2016), “President of City College Quits Abruptly After Scrutiny of Her Finances,” (October 7, 2016), Retrieved at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/08/nyregion/president-city-college-quits.html?action=click&contentCollection=N.Y.%20%2F%20Region&module=RelatedCoverage&region=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article

Chen, D. (2016), “A Divisive President of City College, and a Long List of Personal Expenses,” October 10, 2016, Retrieved at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/nyregion/a-divisive-president-at-city-college-and-a-long-list-of-personal-expenses.html?_r=0

Chen, D. (2016), “City College Gets Interim Leader After President’s Sudden Exit,” November 2, 2016, Retrieved at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/03/nyregion/city-college-gets-interim-leader-after-presidents-sudden-exit.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fnyregion&action=click&contentCollection=nyregion&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=0


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