City University of New York, which graduated 12 Nobel laureates between 1930 and 1950, is making a bid to return to the spotlight by hiring Princeton University economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.
Krugman, who won his own Nobel in 2008, will join visiting scholar David Petraeus, former head of the CIA, and CUNY Board of Trustees Chairman Benno Schmidt, a former president of Yale University, among the prominent names now at CUNY.
After decades in the shadow of New York University and Columbia University, CUNY has stepped up faculty recruiting, boosting the number of full-time professors to 7,500 from about 5,000 over the past 10 years, said Schmidt, who has served as chairman since 2003. A new chancellor, James Milliken, starts in July. The university was created in 1961 by joining the City College of New York with six other municipal institutions.
“The entire faculty has been remade because we’ve been able to channel so much of our budget into hiring full-time faculty,” Schmidt said. “We are combining access and excellence in a way that is unprecedented in higher education.”
Its core institution, City College of New York, was founded in 1847 and by the 1930s attracted some of the city’s most talented students, many of them Jews excluded from the Ivy League. Its Ph.D. programs have remained robust throughout its history.
“CUNY has always attracted high-profile scholars” such as Krugman, said Mitchell Moss, a New York University professor of urban policy and planning. “They have a long history of attracting distinguished scholars at the end of their careers.”
The Graduate Center, which Krugman will join in 2015 as a professor in the Ph.D. program in economics, was also created in 1961 as CUNY’s “jewel in the crown,” Moss said. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., social psychologist Stanley Milgram and literary critic Alfred Kazin were among intellectuals associated with it.
CUNY’s undergraduate reputation began to fade when it opened admissions to all city high school graduates in the fall of 1970 -- a policy that lasted 30 years.
“It just didn’t work very well,” Schmidt said. “What you had was very large numbers of unprepared students going to these four-year colleges. They just weren’t able to perform.”
The policy had changed by 2000, when open admissions remained in place only for the community colleges, while competition returned at the four-year schools with tougher entry requirements. Today, about half the community college students move on to four-year schools, Schmidt said.
In recent years, CUNY has hired a number of professors away from elite universities, including Jeremy Kahn, a mathematician from Brown University; Vijay Balasubramanian, a theoretical physicist from the University of Pennsylvania; David Joselit, an art historian from Yale University; and Cathy Davidson, a technology scholar from Duke University.
“Public universities are much more willing to experiment with the format, at least in the humanities and social sciences,” said Joselit, who began teaching in January. “Higher education is really in a transitional moment.”
Davidson, who is leaving Duke after 25 years, said part of the draw was the university’s high quality and the low cost to students. She wants her students to have an experience like her mother-in-law, who paid little to attend CUNY’s Hunter College in the 1950s and studied with the modern artist Robert Motherwell.
“I know I sound like a gushing teenager when I talk about the Graduate Center and CUNY but, well, I’ve never seen any place like it,” Davidson said.
At a time when outstanding student-loan debt in the U.S. has skyrocketed to $1.2 trillion, CUNY promotes its affordability. About 60 percent of full-time undergraduates attend tuition-free because of federal and state grants and aid from CUNY, and about 80 percent of baccalaureate and associate degree students graduate without debt, according to the school.
CUNY has about 274,000 students seeking degrees and almost 250,000 in continuing education and certificate programs, said William Kelly, interim chancellor and past president of the graduate school. It has 24 campuses spread across five boroughs.
“A university can be both public and provide access to a half-million students and pursue the highest goals imaginable,” said Kelly. “What has happened here is that the university has reclaimed its commitment to both access and excellence. Public universities need to do both.”
Krugman, 61, who has been at Princeton since 2000, will also become a scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study Center at CUNY, effective in July. He announced the moves in his column for the New York Times.
“More and more of my work has focused on issues of income inequality,” Krugman wrote. “Nobody does more important work producing the hard data on which all of this work relies than the Luxembourg Income Study.”
The economist also said he “liked the idea of being associated with a great public university.”
Krugman isn’t making a sacrifice by joining CUNY instead of Columbia or NYU, NYU’s Moss said. At CUNY, he’ll be joining a community of scholars interested in public policy debates.
“In New York, no one has a franchise on anything,” Moss said. “We have competition in museums, in operas, in universities. CUNY has a special kind of niche and he’s an excellent fit.”
Moss compared Krugman’s switch to a sports legend signing with a New York team, as when baseball slugger Reggie Jackson moved to the New York Yankees from the Baltimore Orioles and basketball star Kevin Garnett came to the Brooklyn Nets from the Boston Celtics.
“This will give him an extra 10 years,” Moss said of Krugman. “You don’t want to go stale in Princeton. We’re doing it with Kevin Garnett, we did it with Reggie Jackson and we’ll do it with Paul Krugman.”