Some students staged a quiet protest at Columbia University Teachers College commencement ceremonies Tuesday in New York to express their unhappiness with the choice of Merryl Tisch as a speaker and award recipient.
The protesters opposed the choice of Tisch, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, because of her role in advancing the state’s education reform program, which centers around high-stakes testing and the expansion of charter schools.
While Tisch spoke at the ceremony, some people held up pieces of paper that said, “NOT A TEST SCORE,” and there were protest messages on some graduation caps. One said “OUR STUDENTS ≠ STATS.”
The prestigious school, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, is the oldest teachers college in the country. The protest follows controversy over Teachers College President Susan Fuhrman’s position as a director of the board of Pearson, the world’s largest education and testing company, and some other issues, which Fuhrman addresses in the following memo sent to the school community last week:
A Message from President Fuhrman
Dear TC community members:
As the academic year comes to a close, I would like to take this opportunity to address some of the comments, criticisms, and concerns expressed by members of the TC community. I am listening. And I am determined to find ways for all of us to work together to strengthen Teachers College.
We face many challenges, but we also are fortunate to be in a unique position to play a leading role in the national and global changes affecting education. Our historical role gives us credibility, but so do your talent, dedication, and passion to meet these challenges. With the best students at any institution, a superb faculty, devoted staff and an outstanding Board of Trustees, we are better positioned than ever to move forward together to ensure that TC will continue to lead in the 21st century.
As a first step, I want to address some of the issues that may be concerning you in the hope of encouraging an informed discussion of the critical issues that face TC today and so many other institutions of higher education.
FY ’14 Budget: Over my term as President, we have worked to improve transparency and involve the relevant faculty committees in financial planning for TC over a multiple-year basis. I sincerely appreciate the time and effort that our faculty has devoted to this process, particularly this year in reviewing the proposed budget. This country and our institution continue to face a less than buoyant economy. Our reading of enrollments for Fall 2013 showed no effective growth and even some decline. Consequently, not all expectations regarding compensation could be met at this time. We look forward, however, to working with the faculty over the next few months to address their concerns and suggestions about fiscal priorities, especially when the final enrollment numbers are known.
We will submit the faculty budget resolution to the trustees, who are responsible for weighing all factors to arrive at the overall budget for the new fiscal year. And I can assure you the trustees will take the faculty resolution into account.
It is worth repeating that we have expressed to the faculty and trustees on numerous occasions that this proposed budget is based on conservative revenue and enrollment projections. Should our financial outlook improve in the fall, as we hope it will, many items could be on the table, and the faculty resolution will serve as a helpful guide.
Further, it is worth noting that we have a strong record of compensating faculty and staff well over the past seven years, especially in comparison to other institutions. It’s a good record to build on.
I also want to clarify the discussion about eliminating 20 positions. As early as November 2012, we reviewed a financial plan with the faculty that had as one component the reduction, largely through attrition, of 20 non-instructional staff positions. At that time, doctoral funding was not a component of the financial plan, so there’s no “trade-off” or relationship.
In order to avoid layoffs, we also have consistently said that we have scheduled these reductions to go into effect at the beginning of fiscal year 2015, which begins September 1, 2014. In all discussions about the plan and in multiple meetings, no alternative suggestions were offered.
It’s important for discussions to continue about budgets and the interplay of tuition, enrollments, financial aid, and compensation. I look forward to meeting with the faculty of each of our 10 departments in the coming months and welcome their budget proposals and innovative ideas for keeping TC’s future on solid intellectual and financial ground.
Incentive pay/Bonus: Performance-based pay for senior staff has been the standard compensation practice at Teachers College since at least 1999 and is common practice at many colleges and universities across the country. At TC, performance-based portions of compensation are calculated and awarded solely by the Board of Trustees and not by the administrators.
It’s especially important to have everything on the table during this time of financial uncertainty. Although the Trustees maintain authority over senior staff compensation, the issue of performance-based pay appears to be an impediment to our collective work and I will ask the Trustees to forego awarding bonuses to me and to the rest of the senior staff.
Financial Aid: From the outset of my presidency, it has been my stated goal to move toward full funding of full-time doctoral students so we can be more competitive with our peer graduate schools of education and provide comprehensive research and practical apprenticeships.
We began implementing a new model for doctoral funding support this past year. This new model may need improvement. Moreover, if the design and implementation of this new model of doctoral funding was perceived as undercutting our commitment to other students, we will work to rectify that. Make no mistake: We intend for master’s and part-time students – continuing as well as new – to remain major aid recipients going forward and regret if design or implementation problems, or perception issues, have undercut this goal. Working with faculty and students, we will revisit and refine the approach to doctoral funding and make necessary changes and improvements.
Let me also stress this point: There is no higher priority for Teachers College than making financial support for our doctoral and master’s students stronger and more effective. That is why seeking new funding for student scholarships, fellowships, and financial aid remains a major focus of our donor relations efforts and the top fundraising priority for our capital campaign.
Just in the past 18 months alone, we have raised nearly $20 million for scholarships – an 81% increase over the $11 million raised for scholarships during the prior 18-month period.
Pearson Board Position: I realize that my affiliation with the board of Pearson is disturbing to various members of the TC community. I also appreciate – and agree with – concerns about the overuse of and emphasis on testing in education policy and reform. However, I believe strongly that the best way to represent those views is to be fully engaged in – and, I would hope, influence – the discussion of the role of the private sector in public education.
Participating in conversations across the education and corporate sectors is important to me, just as cross-sector conversations between researchers and policymakers have characterized my long career that attracted TC’s attention when I was appointed your president.
The TC Board of Trustees has fully reviewed my Pearson board service, which began before my tenure as TC president, and, in fact, ends in less than one year. The board believes it’s beneficial for private sector entities that are involved in education to have an educator’s point of view about policy, research, and practice represented at the highest levels of the company.
TC Medal: I have been listening closely to objections by some about bestowing the TC Medal of Distinguished Service on New York State Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. Let me assure you that our decision to bestow the TC Medal on Chancellor Tisch was made to recognize her body of work and leadership across a range of fields, including education, and does not constitute an institutional endorsement of specific decisions, opinions, or policies. The same standard applies to all of our Medalists, and going forward we will broaden community involvement in the selection process.
Chancellor Tisch has been a great friend to her alma mater TC, working to ensure that we remain a leading force for education improvement. Last year, she was instrumental in marshaling support for the Teachers College Community School, our public school in Harlem, which helped to pave the way toward its opening in a new building in time for the first day of class this past September.
Whether one agrees with specific aspects of the chancellor’s policies, her positive impact on the lives of New Yorkers is evident in her many accomplishments in public education over the years as well as her enormous contributions in health, human services, and the arts. Today, as leader of New York’s public education system, Chancellor Tisch presents an essential voice and perspective to any conversation about the future of our schools. I look forward to having the chancellor back to TC to keep the conversation going about critical issues for the future of education. And let’s keep the discussion going in our classrooms and hallways – engaging in robust discussion and debate of ideas is what we’re all about at TC.
In closing, I want you to know that I hear your messages and the voices of dissent. I hope that you will, in turn, afford our convocation speaker the opportunity to honor our graduates and to express her views. In the days ahead, let us celebrate the true stars of TC today: our wonderful graduates – all 1,900 of them – who will carry forward our tradition of excellence and commitment to learning for the next 125 years.
Susan H. Fuhrman