CUNY, All Too CUNY: Or, What Happens When Higher-Ed Hoodlums Aren’t Brought to Heel?

In August, I blogged about a New York Times story on a corruption investigation of City College President Lisa Coico. On Friday, the Times reported that Coico abruptly resigned. Today, the Times has a long piece on the corruption and potential criminality that led to Coico’s resignation (upon threat of firing).

On the one hand, the piece paints a portrait of a college president so fantastically corrupt, it’s almost comical.

Ms. Coico, who had an annual salary of $400,000 at that point [2011], was using the college’s main fund-raising vehicle, the 21st Century Foundation, to pay tens of thousands of dollars for housekeeping, furniture, seasonal fruits and organic maple-glazed nuts, among other items….By August 2011, according to an email between two school officials, the college had begun to itemize more than $155,000 of her spending in three categories — “college,” “personal” and “iffy.”

On the other hand, it’s just one blood-boiling outrage after another, where the criminality flows, like lava, from the mountain of largesse that Coico was legally allowed in the first place.

The Times also questioned whether Ms. Coico had repaid a $20,000 security deposit for a rental home, or kept the money for herself….Ms. Coico had a housing allowance of $5,000 per month when she was hired, which was increased to $7,500 per month in July 2010.

We have adjuncts at CUNY who can’t pay their rent. Mostly because the pay is so low, but sometimes, as occurred at Brooklyn College last month, because CUNY can’t be bothered to get its act together so that people are paid on time. Yet a college president, who’s already earning a $400,000 salary (and remember that was in 2011; God knows what she was raking in upon her resignation) plus a housing allowance of $7500, gets additional help to put down a $20,000 security deposit on a rental home in Westchester?

On top of it all, the article makes plain that CUNY officials have been nervous about and watchful of Coico’s spending since her first year at the college:

Behind the scenes, there were also questions about her personal spending going back to the middle of 2011, roughly a year after her appointment….Anxious about the amount she was spending, especially given the fact that many of City College’s students come from low-income families and struggle to pay even its modest tuition, some began “questioning its appropriateness, since the president had a substantial housing allowance meant for such things,” said one longtime official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being entangled in the investigation.

She was later ordered by Frederick P. Schaffer, CUNY’s general counsel, to repay the college $51,000, or roughly one-third of the expenses in question, because she had not received prior approval for moving and other expenses. She fulfilled that obligation by January 2016.

Ms. Coico was also informed that any furniture bought with foundation funds — including $50,000 worth for a rental home in Larchmont, N.Y. — belonged to City College. Moreover, she was asked to return a $20,000 security deposit at the end of her lease in Larchmont.

Ms. Coico and her husband bought another home in Westchester County in April 2013, property records show. When asked if she repaid the $20,000 deposit, the college declined to comment.

But this summer, The Times took a closer look at her expenses, andreported that CUNY’s Research Foundation, which manages research funds for the entire system, had ultimately covered Ms. Coico’s personal expenses from her early years as president. Using Research Foundation funds that way raised concerns because they could include money from federal grants, which are typically earmarked for research-related expenses, such as staff and equipment, and have strict guidelines about how they are used.

…Two weeks after the Times report was published, a subpoena was issued by the office of Robert L. Capers, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

The memo in question is just one paragraph long and is bureaucratic in nature.

Addressed to an employee at the provost’s office named Luisa Hassan, and dated Sept. 15, 2011, it begins, “As we have discussed,” and is attributed to Ron Woodford, a manager at the college’s 21st Century Foundation. It goes on to say that some of Ms. Coico’s expenses “were inadvertently paid” by that foundation, when they should have been paid by CUNY’s Research Foundation. The memo then asks Ms. Hassan to process an invoice for $155,176 to “rectify the funding source,” for what it calls “start-up expenses associated with the appointment of the new president.”

Were the memo proved to be backdated or manufactured, the responsible parties could be open to charges such as obstruction of justice, legal experts said.

Given all of this, why has it taken CUNY so long—to the point of a federal investigation being launched—to demand Coico’s resignation?

The whole story, in my experience, is CUNY, all too CUNY. Not just the opéra bouffe of corruption but also the creaking machinery of self-correction.

Here you have a garden-variety miscreant, thieving one piece of the pie after another from an institution that has so little to begin with. Even the things Coico did that weren’t criminal should have been enough to get her fired. On ethical grounds alone.

But what did CUNY do? Lots of whispering emails, lots of back and forth between cowed and ineffective administrators, culminating each time, it seems, with a polite—and sometimes unheeded—request to Coico that she correct the problem. As if it were all a simple misunderstanding or oversight.

Indeed, in the one instance when CUNY seemed more determined to take action, an extensive internal investigation of just one of Coico’s questionable moves led to her being exonerated by the institution. Whether she was in that instance correct in her actions, surely her track record might have raised enough red flags to lead to a much wider investigation rather than a declaration, with much fanfare, of her innocence.

Not once, it seems, until the very last minute—the Times reported on Friday that it was a smoking-gun email from the newspaper that led to the abrupt resignation of Coico, leaving City College with no replacement, save the acting provost, who was herself replacing someone else; all suggesting that Coico’s being pushed out was unplanned, unrehearsed, and unprepared for—did CUNY execute a plan to get rid of Coico. From what I can tell (and in my experience, as I said, this is how CUNY often operates), the institution allowed this higher-ed hoodlum to happily continue in her position, secure in the knowledge that if she ever did anything too egregious or got caught, that she’d get a mild entreaty to fix the error.

If there is one potential bit of good news in this story, it’s this:

And over the weekend, speculation intensified among staff and faculty members as to whether people close to the president would also be implicated, and whether the federal investigation would spread to other parts of CUNY, the largest public urban university in the country.

One can only hope that that speculation turns out to be true.


  1. Roquentin October 10, 2016 at 3:25 pm | #

    Two things I find interesting:

    1) The article states she’s the first CUNY alum to head up City College. I’d wager that at least played a decent role in how she was able to get away with as much as she did. She’s the “native son” of both Brooklyn and this particular education system. It’s funny, growing up in small towns we’d call that sort of thing the “Good Ol’ Boy Network,” but the basis of it was people who’d always lived in a place to whom the rules simply didn’t apply and would be given shocking amounts of leeway legally or otherwise.

    2) This is probably coincidence, but Coirico had a doctorate in biochemistry. My younger sister also does. Granted, this was at the University of Iowa, but the shocking corruption of the woman running her research lab was the largest reason she quit academia and now works in the private sector. Maybe it’s something to do with the sciences. Who knows? What I will say, is it’s almost impossible to make a credible case for the ethical superiority of academic study when this kind of corruption takes place there. Right?

  2. gstally October 10, 2016 at 3:31 pm | #

    wow, just wow.

  3. John Maher October 10, 2016 at 3:37 pm | #

    The neoliberal idea of higher education is this; only administration adds value and academics are overhead which must be efficiently managed to control costs.By this standard, Coico saved CUNY money by purchasing valuable furniture an d organic maple glazed nuts rather than wasting it upon research, or, even worse, teaching.

  4. jonnybutter October 10, 2016 at 4:11 pm | #

    I’m hoping that both the nuts and the maple syrup from which the glaze material was made, were organic.

  5. xenon2 October 10, 2016 at 4:14 pm | #

    I tweeted nyt article last Friday.

    I wonder how many adjunct professors and students could use that money?

  6. mark October 11, 2016 at 5:07 am | #

    The band is rompin’ The folks are stompin’
    I just can’t get off the ground
    Believe me, Pruitt, I just can’t do it.
    Since my little baby left town

    Ain’t got no house in Westchester
    Ain’t got no Chris Craft to cruise
    Lost all my Basie with Lester
    I ain’t got nothin’ but the blues

    Duke Ellington, I ain’t got nothing but the blues

  7. Fae Aeryn October 15, 2016 at 4:51 pm | #

    Nothing occurs in a vacuum. Whatever else contributes to ongoing institutional corruption, it is always the powerful within the institution who sustain a corrupt culture and protect each other.

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