Is Educational Freedom and Choice Always Free? Reflections on Our Conversation with Dean John Mogulescu

(Another version was posted to our Futures Initiative group on

This week our “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education” course had the honor of hosting Dean John Mogulescu, Founding Dean of the CUNY School of Professional Studies for an interview with President Emeritus (and “Mapping” co-teacher), Bill Kelly.  They are old friends–and two of my CUNY colleagues whom I most admire.  John is one of the most innovative, energetic educators I know, and he did our class the honor of talking candidly not only about what he has accomplished but about what it means to be a change-maker within institutions where many people do not want to change–and really don’t want anyone else to change them!

About John Mogulescu

Aside from founding the School of Professional Studies, John’s credentials include leading CUNY Start, an intensive preparation in writing, reading, and math for students whose high school preparation is lacking.  He also lead theASAP program, Accelerated Studies in Associate Programs, with its prescribed methods for students starting community college. ASAP “assists students in earning associate degrees within three years by providing a range of financial, academic, and personal supports including comprehensive and personalized advisement, career counseling, tutoring, tuition waivers, MTA MetroCards, and additional financial assistance to defray the cost of textbooks.”  One feature of ASAP is that, from the start, it has carefully tracked and studied its success.  The numbers for persistence (graduation and completion) are eye-popping:  “ASAP’s current cross-cohort three-year graduation rate is 52% vs. 22% for comparison.”

John is also the creator of Guttman College.  Last year, when I taught a MOOC on the history and future of higher education, our collective final project was to “create higher education from scratch”—and one of the institutions we studied as a model was Guttman College, founded in 2011 as a public community college. (You can read about it here: Rethinking Community College for the 21st Century and other college planning documents from 2008-2010; accessible at:

Limits, Requirements, Pathways—and Freedom

One theme that emerged from our conversation with this remarkable person was when you limit and when you expand possibilities for learning.  Interestingly, one of the students in our class asked me after if I really agreed with this idea of a prescriptive curriculum for entering community college students.  It was a valid question.

Let me take a few moments to address why I actually do not think there is a contradiction.  To my mind, it isn’t a binary.  But I’ll take some time with this because some people, like this student will be surprised.


Canon.  Again.  I’ve spent one portion of my career in the “canon debates,” fighting the idea that you should have one identical curriculum of “great works” that every student should read.  I have no interest in having that battle all over again—but my position is not changed. (I have no problem with a cohort of students all reading the same book and having a shared experience that can inform other experiences of college.  I think there are wonderful collaborative and imaginative results that come from such shared experiences.  I just want us to be clear about what “we” are sharing, how “we” label what “we” count as a “legacy” and a “heritage” and “greatness” for others who may come with other, equally great and more diverse legacies.)

I did not ask him, but I don’t think I would have any disagreement from Dean Mogulescu there.  In fact, my sense is that he, more than anyone, understands the power of disempowerment to undermine persistence and success.  His comments on diversity were extremely inspiring.  But perhaps next year it would be useful to have a workshop and a symposium on how one manages to think through ideals of diversity and inclusion and ideals of shared experiences, creating a cohort.

Syllabus-building has been a real feature of our Futures Initiative course on “Mapping the Future of Higher Education.”  As part of their final project, every graduate student in the course will post a public syllabus that models student-centered learning and so there will be many opportunities to see how this experimental class composes a syllabus after a semester of peer-learning, sharing, teaching, and continuous feedback on every level.

However,  since our graduate class represents nine exceptionally different disciplines—chemistry, speech mechanism anatomy, classics, narrative, theater, art history, music, data bases and programing, composition and rhetoric, etc—the content of the syllabus has not been our focus this year.  Next year, however, we’ll be sponsoring five or six separate team-taught courses where the discipline and field are key.  How do you select works (there is always selectivity) with both inclusion and coherence as values?  How do you build a syllabus to these challenges and how do you surface the assumptions of your selection in a way that empowers students?

Yesterday, for example, we met with two professors who will be teaching in the Futures Initiative in Spring 2016.  Professor Anna Stetsenko(Graduate Center, Psychology/Urban Education) and Professor Eduardo Vianna(Social Sciences, LaGuardia Community College)  will be team-teaching”Agency and Social Transformation: Increasing Equity in Education and Beyond.” In the course of the conversation, they noted how often introductory textbooks in the field flatten controversy and difference; they intend to make that part of the focus of their course—how you negotiate a world where there are no right answers?  How can your education prepare you for a world where you must make decisions but there is no one answer that will solve all the problems and, indeed, your decision might make more problems for some and solve many other problems for others?  That level of complexity exists in our world.  How do we lead and teach students and help arm them for the real world?

The Central Paradox:  A Clear Educational Pathway to a Life and World That’s Unclear

That returns us to the basic question of this rumination: how does higher education prepare you for a world of complexity, indecisiveness, confusion, contradiction, disagreement, and rapid change?  And why do you need a clear pathway to succeed in order to graduate into a world where the pathways can be a maze?

What may surprise you is that I believe a clear pathway is necessary to be able to begin to navigate a world where there are no pathways.

A Fishing Analogy

Let me use an analogy.  I spent many years as a dedicated (some would say fanatic) fisherman.  I gave up fishing entirely more than two decades ago and haven’t touched a fishing pole since.  But for several years I fished a lot, everywhere, and, although I was pretty unconventional, I caught a lot of fish in challenging circumstances—bass and also wily cutthroat trout—even when fishing with pros.  I still remember how important it was for me to master real basics—learning how to tie various knots in fishing line was one of those.  Once I knew the basics, I went to town.

But there was something even more basic for me to learn before I could out-fish (pardon me, Wally, Sykes, Bud and Karen: I couldn’t resist the fisherman’s dig, for nostalgia’s sake!) Alberta rodeo guys and gals on the North American and on the Indian Rodeo Circuits (my fishing pals back then).  I’m from Chicago.  I did not come from a country, rural, mountain, rodeo, fishing culture.  It was also essential for me to learn basics from experts (riding a horse, driving a truck, snow shoeing, how to use an ice auger, etc).  And even more essential basics: what to do if a mountain lion, black bear, or, heaven forbid, a grizzly approached when I was fishing alone up in the beaver dams near the tree line in the Albert Rockies.

I became a great fisherman (if I do say so myself:  and, believe me, I’m having a blast writing this!!!) because I spent a few years carefully, tediously mastering all the basics, under the extremely careful tutelage of pros.  It would have been a disaster—it would have been a failure—to send me out ice fishing on Mamie Lake not knowing which end of an auger was up.  My first years in Alberta were the ASAP of fishing for native cutthroat trout.  I had all the will and excitement and motivation in the world.  If people hadn’t taken the time to show, advise, correct, lead, set examples, show me best methods, and on and on, I would have shrugged and said fishing was stupid and dropped out.

My huge takeaway from reading John Mogulescu’s work and hearing him yesterday was that, you cannot be creative, you cannot be confident, you cannot succeed, if you enter into a new culture and don’t have a clue to even the most basic needs.  You cannot learn in a vacuum.  There are conventions, rules, tricks, tools, metrics, assumptions, skills, experiences, that are assumed in anything difficult and new.

If you come from a prep school, you probably can go to a university with no requirements and little advising.  If you come from a family where graduate school or professional school and straight A’s in a distinguished college career are taken for granted, then you don’t need someone to tell you how to plan a semester of challenging and different assignments where no one really spells out all the rules.

If you are a city kid going fishing for the first time in a beaver dam in the Canadian Rockies, you sure better know how to be prepared if you hear a snort and aren’t sure if it is a bear or your buddy.  If you don’t have the basics, it will all  seem dangerous.  In a situation of danger, only the truly heroic or the truly foolish rush ahead.  The majority simply say, “This Is Not For Me.”

Persistence and success require a foundation.  Period.  Most of our CUNY students coming to community college do not have that foundation to build on.  A program such as ASAP—and of course there are various others as well—provides a foundation to get started.  Without a foundation, failure is predictableSuccess is the surprise.

At our elite institutions, according to one educational economist, twenty times more resources are expended on ensuring student persistence than at our public universities.  Twenty times—on those who

Requirements and Persistence

I’ve spent my career championing project-centered learning; learning based on student interests, passions and skills; collaborative learning; interactive learning; and experiential learning.  I was inspired by John Mogulescu’s presentation and would like to think more about how these pedagogical goals interface with curriculum, advising, and other aspects of “designing higher education from scratch.”

Futures Initiative for AY 2015-2016

Thank you, John and Bill, for such an inspiring class.  Next year, the Futures Initiative will be hosting monthly open sessions on all of the issues of equity and innovation that influence higher education today.  I’d love to invite you both to be part of a symposium, next Fall, on how we balance freedom and choice, structure and pathways.  And how we help our most challenged students to not only succeed against odds but, in the end, to feel confident about all the future challenges ahead.


Guttman’s Institutional Goals

1. The Stella and Charles Guttman Community College will improve student learning, retention and graduation rates by implementing and refining a new educational model to serve our students.

2. The Stella and Charles Guttman Community College will provide students with opportunities to achieve academically, grow socially, and contribute to the college and the community.

3. The Stella and Charles Guttman Community College will be an exemplary environment in which to work, one that affords faculty, administration and staff ample opportunities to grow, to learn and to practice their profession at the highest standards.

4. The Stella and Charles Guttman Community College will be a model learning organization by effectively communicating its mission and philosophy, being transparent in its operations, and sharing its knowledge widely with both internal and external stakeholders.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309