By Samip Delhiwala
Published: November 29th, 2017
Eight months after disclosing his throat cancer diagnosis to the public, James B. Milliken, the chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY), announced last Tuesday, Nov. 21 in a letter to CUNY that he will step down from his position at the end of the Spring 2018 semester.
“I have been at the helm of this most remarkable institution for four years, and it has been among the most rewarding experiences of my life, but I have decided that it is the right time for a change,” Milliken said in the letter.
Although Milliken told CUNY back in March that his cancer is “fairly common and highly curable,” and that his “prognosis is very good,” he stated that “some additional health challenges have followed and will require [his] attention in the months ahead.”
“I expect to be active and working for many more years, but there is no denying that the last nine months have been draining physically and emotionally,” he said.
Milliken also referenced the CUNY Board of Trustees, remarking that only two members from the original 17 that appointed him remain today.
“These new trustees will have their own ideas about CUNY, and they should have the opportunity to help shape the leadership and agenda for the future,” Milliken said, indicating that his vision for CUNY perhaps differed from the new trustees’, which could have contributed to his decision.
Milliken announced his decision now in order to give the board enough time to “conduct a thorough search” and have a set replacement in time for the new academic year, which begins Fall 2018.
Milliken’s decision to step down adds to the list of leadership changes within CUNY during the past couple of years; Brooklyn College and City College of New York (CCNY) both have relatively new presidents.
Milliken was appointed chancellor back in January 2014 after serving as the president of the University of Nebraska for ten years.
His tenure at CUNY consists of various achievements for the system, including higher graduation rates at the university’s community colleges. CUNY has also been recognized, under Milliken’s leadership, as aiding low-income students with opportunities for upward mobility, launching its Foster Care Initiative to help increase foster children’s chances of timely graduation, and providing private scholarships to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students.
CUNY also launched its own School of Medicine, School of Public Health, and its new strategic plan, “Connected CUNY,” with Milliken pushing to increase diversity in NY’s arts programs and increasing the number of women in STEM programs.
Despite CUNY’s success during Milliken’s tenure, the university has also dealt with financial controversies.
CUNY has been dealing with budget cuts the past few years, and in 2016, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo initially proposed a $485 million budget cut to CUNY before eventually deciding to fully fund CUNY. Milliken may have played a part in Cuomo’s change of heart, as CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress (PSC) labor union pressured Milliken back in March of 2016 to take a stand against Cuomo to secure state funding. But although such a deep budget cut was avoided, CUNY campuses currently face decaying facilities and heavily overcrowded classrooms, and less funds are being spent on fixing those issues while tuition has been steadily increasing.
Milliken has also been accused of poor governance on CCNY, CUNY’s flagship campus. CCNY’s former president, Lisa S. Coico, who abruptly resigned in October 2016, was being investigated by federal prosecutors for improper use of funds. According to the NY Times, there was evidence to suggest that Coico was embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from CCNY’s 21st Century Foundation to fund her own personal expenses.
The chancellor was also part of the CUNY faculty and staff contract controversy in 2015 and 2016. In October 2015, hundreds of CUNY faculty and staff members, some representing PSC, chanted outside Milliken’s apartment building demanding a contract. Faculty members, at the time, were working without a contract for six years while working without raises for five, before a tentative contract deal was reached in September 2016. With the contract set to expire in a few days, PSC has looks to reach a contract deal before the end of Milliken’s term.
“The PSC is committed to working with the Chancellor till his term ends in the summer to achieve as much as possible at the bargaining table,” BC sociology professor Alex Vitale, a PSC Executive Council member, said. “More importantly, during this transition period, it is essential that the CUNY Board of Trustees secure the necessary funding to ensure that the contract allows for competitive salary increases, significantly higher pay for adjuncts, and improvements in staffing and basic working conditions for students, faculty and staff.”
Milliken intends to serve out the rest of his tenure with the future of CUNY in mind, insisting that “[CUNY] is on the right track.”