CUNY and "The New Education"

September 7, 2017

Distinguished Professor Cathy N. Davidson highlights CUNY's innovations in her popular new book, The New Education.

Higher education in the United States, modeled largely on the ideas of the Industrial Revolution, is ripe for change. This argument is hardly new, but Cathy N. Davidson, professor of English and director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center, makes it persuasively in her book, The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (Basic Books, 2017). Far from a rant or a screed, the book is a highly readable guide to higher education's challenges and some promising solutions.

Throughout, we meet reformers - often faculty members and students - who are working from the inside to create change in their own institutions and sometimes in higher education in general. There are plenty of examples from CUNY, which Davidson calls "New York City's single most important engine of economic mobility."

While Davidson is forthright in describing the effects of CUNY's underfunding on students and faculty, she says her role as a professor at the Graduate Center is 'the best job in the world.' "I've never met more hardworking, inspiring students or faculty," she writes.


The stories from CUNY are indeed uplifting. Borough of Manhattan Community College Professor Joshua Belknap has found an innovative way to teach English as a second language. Early in his course, he asks students to research and present - in English - the strengths of their native languages. The concept is to bolster their confidence as experts and convey that English is not a superior language.

"Good teaching counts," Davidson writes, noting that she has found some of the best examples of teaching at community colleges, which are egalitarian and laser-focused on student growth.

Investing in students for whom opportunities for success are few and far between is the top priority for LaGuardia Community College President Gail Mellow, whom Davidson portrays as the force behind LaGuardia's recent rise. From meticulous building maintenance to establishing a President's Society for high-achieving students, Mellow is adamant about showing respect for her diverse students.

Accelerated Studies in Associate Programs, or ASAP, is another CUNY success story. The program, Davidson points out, has doubled and in some cases even tripled graduation rates at CUNY community colleges using seemingly simple but well tested services. These include covering students' subway fare; intensive, individualized advising; and proactive support with financial aid to ensure that students can afford to attend school even when their grants or loans are delayed.

Closer to home, at the Graduate Center, Davidson taught Evan Misshula, a criminal justice doctoral student and data scientist. Davidson describes Misshula's approach to teaching Databases and Datamining at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where nearly half of the students are the first ones in their families to attend college. He challenged his students to create an app that made a "public contribution," and two of the women in his class developed Jailbreak My Life, for which they won top awards at the AT&T Wireless Women in Technology Hackathon for Good.


Beyond student-centered, purposeful learning, Davidson advocates for learning that is interconnected - unbound by rigid disciplines - and immersive. She also urges educators to harness the benefits of technology and the possibilities it offers to be social, creative, efficient, and disruptive.

Davidson calls for increased government funding for higher education, citing statistics that higher education is indeed a public good. "Not to put too fine a point it," Davidson writes, "we have given up on the one national business that has worked for us for 150 years: higher education."

The book, which took Davidson four years to write, is based on her nearly 20 years of research in creating effective, accessible higher education. Davidson also puts her research into practice. In addition to directing the Futures Initiative, she is the founder and co-director of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory).


In an email interview about the book, Davidson explained that she was recruited to the Graduate Center to start the Futures Initiative to see "how many of the ideas I was developing - on how the most innovative education can also be the most equitable - could actually be implemented at the nation's largest urban public university.

"People said you couldn't do the kind of innovative pairing of professors across all of CUNY that we do in our team-taught courses - one senior GC person teaming with one more junior person from the campuses, sometimes from the community colleges - to teach graduate students in interdisciplinary, innovative, student-centered methods that they then teach to their CUNY students that semester in their undergraduate courses."

With the Futures Initiative going strong, Davidson has proven the skeptics wrong. In her words, "If it can happen at underfunded CUNY, it can happen at every university in the country."