Curing CUNY: A Q&A with Board Chairman Bill Thompson
When it comes to New York City politics, Bill Thompson knows a thing or two. The longtime former New York City comptroller and two-time mayoral candidate has an accomplished career in politics. Yet these days he commits his time to another important issue: reforming the CUNY system. The CUNY board of trustees chairman stopped by the New York Slant podcast to discuss his efforts to improve the city’s university system, his opinion of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first term and his take on the controversy surrounding the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. You can listen to the full conversation in its entirety, here.
C&S: Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed you as the chairman of the CUNY board of trustees last year. How did he rope you back into public service?
BT: My parents went to Brooklyn College. Both of my parents were beneficiaries and you’re looking at the late 1940s. When you look at opportunity presented to African-Americans, CUNY presented that opportunity. So when you look at history, and at CUNY, and what it has meant across the decades for those fighting to get into the middle class, it has presented opportunity to so many, and to so many immigrants. I'm feeling very fortunate that I'm there at this point in time and able to perhaps shake things up a little bit to look to create more transparency and accountability.
C&S: In your conversations with the governor about CUNY and how to improve it, what are the priorities that you agreed on?
BT: I think a few things. No. 1, the governor made it very clear that he was supportive of CUNY, and I think that’s important from the start because there was some concern that he was not. He's supportive of CUNY and looking to bring additional resources and support, which you just saw in the last budget. There are those who are out there who were asking the question, was the governor supporting a merger of CUNY and SUNY? The governor made it very clear that wasn’t a direction he wanted to go in.
It wasn’t a question of, “Here are my priorities,” other than bringing about real accountability to CUNY. It’s a question more of, “You need to be focused on improving the level of education, of improving the level of accountability and bringing about change. How you do that, I will be supportive.” So it wasn’t a prescriptive; it was general. He was going to be very supportive of higher education and the city university and the students and the opportunity to go to CUNY. And now how it came about, he was leaving that up to me and the board of trustees.
C&S: The percentages of Latinos and blacks in top colleges in the CUNY system are lower than ever ...
BT: Now that we have slightly different people on the board, we’re going to be looking at everything from top to bottom. We’re going to be looking at who do we do business with? The governor’s always pushed 30 percent (of state contracts going to women- and minority-owned businesses). We’re going to be looking to make sure that happens at CUNY. We’re looking at admissions. What are the admissions policies and how is it done? What’s the faculty look like? What’s the administration look like at the central office? We’re looking for more diversity. We’re looking for the best and the brightest. And in New York City, the best and the brightest are diverse.
C&S: So you're confident that the governor supports these changes?
BT: The governor has our back. He's said from the beginning, bring about change, turn things upside down.
C&S: You had requested an inspector general to come and examine the CUNY system, and that inspector general came back with a report that said the system was ripe for abuse. What’s your approach to fixing that?
BT: The inspector general has been incredibly helpful. That was an interim report and what it started to do was give us a blueprint of things that we needed to do. And we are working with the inspector general on a regular basis. More than anything what I'm looking for, what my colleagues on the board of trustees are looking for, is best practice. When it comes to transparency in foundations, when it comes to transparency in the way that we contract others, when it just comes to the average business we do each and every day, it comes down to what is best practice. What’s the most transparent and accountable way we can look at things and I think that is what the inspector general is bringing to the table.
C&S: The question of mayoral control of New York City schools has been a divisive issue. Do you support mayoral control?
BT: At this point it is important that (the state Legislature) extend mayoral control.
C&S: How do you think New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has done in his first term?
BT: I think that there are some things he’s done well and some things that he has not done as well. I think that if you look, the education system is stable. I think also if you look, crime has stayed at a positive. If anything, it’s declined and that everybody wants to see. I think that the areas that the mayor has to do more at is conveying, where are we going? And I think that when you look at the homeless situation, when you look at affordable housing, I know he’s made that a huge focal point: How many units? Where are we at? Because if you ask the average New Yorker, particularly when the mayor has always spoken about income inequality, the average New Yorker doesn’t feel that things are better, they feel that they're being squeezed more and more each day. I’m willing to obviously concede that there’s only so much the mayor can do to bring about that change, but I think that he needs to do a better job. Where are we right now? What are we going to do? We’re going to have problems and I think we all see that coming. We have Republicans in the House, the Senate and in the White House right now and they’re all indicating it’s going to be tough. Where do we want go and what do we have to do? And it’s not just criticism, we need to start to prepare ourselves. Where best to prepare ourselves and how best can we weather the next four years?
C&S: We have all heard about the controversy over the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. What’s your position on that this year?
BT: I’ve been asked a few times and I’ve said publicly that if I was still comptroller, I would march. I would march, but I’d also be very clear in making a distinction between marching and supporting Puerto Rican culture and heritage and contribution and supporting a people as opposed to supporting an individual. So I would march but I would draw the distinction absolutely and positively.
C&S: Will you return to politics in the future?
BT: In the end, everything is timing and I've learned to never say never.