A Look at SUNY Provost Salins’s Tenure as He Steps Down

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The New York Sun

It’s one of the lesser known but more intriguing experiments in higher education: What happens when the results-oriented public-policy principles of the Manhattan Institute are applied to the nation’s largest comprehensive public university system?

After almost 10 years, and after having served three chancellors, Peter Salins will be stepping down as provost of the State University of New York, concluding a tenure in which his high expectations and grand plans were frequently adjusted by a resistant faculty — and his achievements were criticized by his former supporters. The architect of the most important academic changes at the State University of New York during Governor Pataki’s administration, Mr. Salins, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a former editor of City Journal, the urban affairs magazine published by the think tank, will be teaching policy analysis to graduate students at Stony Brook University.

Mr. Salins came to SUNY at the onset of an ideological push toward greater academic standards and accountability at New York’s public-higher education system set in motion by Republican leaders, Governor Pataki, and Mayor Giuliani. Mr. Salins says his efforts have raised the academic bar at SUNY. SAT scores for incoming freshman at doctoral campuses have risen by 85 points from 1997 to 2005 and by 62 points at comprehensive colleges over the same time period. Total student enrollment has also risen by 15.5% to more than 414,000 students. Research grants totaled almost $1 billion this year, about double the amount from eight years ago.

When he was elevated in 1997 from CUNY’s Hunter College, where he was the chairman of the urban affairs and planning department, to the top academic post at SUNY by Pataki-appointed trustees, Mr. Salins, was best known for his work defending America’s melting pot of assimilation and his statistics-heavy arguments against rent control. In Mr.Salins, trustees saw a conservative intellectual adept at sorting through complex public-policy problems and charged him with setting a course of action for SUNY that would hold SUNY’s sprawling network of 64 campuses more accountable and improve student performance, which lagged behind other state systems.

Rather than act as a top-down enforcer of the will of the trustees, Mr. Salins said he chose a pragmatic path that avoided deal-breakers and settled on compromises. It was a path that not all of the trustees agreed with. His fiercest critic among them, Candace de Russy, is the same person who recruited him from Hunter. “Peter, like so many other talented administrators at SUNY, largely acquiesced in the dominant ‘go along to get along’ mentality,” she said.

Looking back at his tenure, Mr. Salins said that he couldn’t have met any objectives if he didn’t work with the faculty — that some change is better than none at all.

A key program he developed was a common curriculum for SUNY students that required students to take at least one course in 12 subjects, including American history, foreign language, and humanities. Initially, SUNY’s faculty senate revolted and expressed “no confidence” in the trustees, but they later agreed to it after Mr. Salins and the trustees assured them that they would have most of the control of the content of the courses.

Mr. Salins said he was satisfied with SUNY’s general education program, saying it was more comprehensive and rigorous than ones at comparable state systems. But his previous comments about his expectations for the program seem to indicate that it has fallen short of his expectations. In 2000, Mr. Salins told the Albany Times Union that he was against a proposed core curriculum course in American history called the “American Jewish Experience,” arguing that it was too narrow in content.

“I assume you could work in George Washington and Thomas Jefferson by hook or by crook,” Mr. Salins reportedly said. “But it’s unlikely that a course on the American Jewish experience could cover the entire sweep of American political, social, cultural, and economic history from beginning to end.”

The course was ultimately approved for SUNY Albany, meaning that students there can take it to complete their American history requirement. They can also satisfy the requirement by taking a single course on the “history of women and social change in the U.S.”

Mr. Salins pushed for system-wide assessments of incoming freshmen, but assured a faculty governance board that SUNY would not voluntarily release the results to the public. He also allowed campuses to decide whether to re-assess students in subsequent years, which would indicate their improvement. Mr. Salins said he faced a “huge amount of struggle” in getting the various faculties behind the student-assessment plan.

He also developed a “mission review” program requiring campuses to submit five-year plans that specified goals for increasing enrollment and four-year graduation rates and for attracting more competitive students. Campuses have just completed their second five-year master plans for the years 2005 to 2010.

The initiative has come under criticism from Ms. de Russy, who faults the reviews for not addressing whether campuses met their original goals.

Mr. Salins said getting the campuses to agree to the reviews was in itself a hard-fought victory. Some SUNY campuses were opposed to measuring graduation rates, he said, but consented in the end.

“I think we have achieved a great deal,” Mr. Salins said. “If you look at the metrics and a lot of the processes, the university has made enormous progress.” The SUNY trustees are conducting a search for a new provost.

The New York Sun

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