CUNY, All Too CUNY: Or, what happens when higher-ed hoodlums aren’t brought to heel?

by Corey Robin on October 10, 2016

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.



Dr. Hilarius 10.10.16 at 9:05 pm

A good example of the failure of university president as CEO model of governance. Model comes complete with ineffectual trustees and administrators.


Brett 10.10.16 at 9:34 pm

Aren’t there people above her who are supposed to be watch-dogs on this as well? Did they just not care that she was stealing from the college, because they’d rather not go through the hassle of hiring another college president? Was it okay as long as she was compliant and enthusiastic in making budget cuts?


Tabasco 10.10.16 at 10:54 pm

It seems to be a failure on so many levels: a hiring failure (CEOs who lie, cheat and steal almost always did so in previous jobs); a failure of auditing and accountability systems; a failure of governance; and most of all, a failure of culture. Unless these are fixed, it will happen again.


PJW 10.11.16 at 1:24 am


William Timberman 10.11.16 at 3:05 am

From the other coast: Robert Huttenback. Thirty years ago, this was, but having witnessed the whole mess from far too close up for comfort, I suppose I’m not all that surprised at the detailed similarities with the Coico case you’re reporting on here. The Wikipedia entry gives only the gist, but the details in all their sleaziness are still available elsewhere on the Web for anyone who has the stomach to wade through them. To quote from our swine of the hour, If you’re a star, they let you do it. The depressing thing is that we don’t seem to have any institutions left where this casual breach of trust isn’t routine.


kidneystones 10.11.16 at 3:39 am

“That’s what is done by tin-pot dictators spanning the globe from North Korea to Zimbabwe.”

Excellent post, Corey. Yes, I’m aware that the quote is from Beauchamp, but I think it fits just as well, if not better here.

I’m an adjunct with bona fides and a publication history to receive research funding from universities, just not quite often enough. I reference the tin-pot dictators for two reasons.

Tabasco and Brett get to the nub. Ms. Coico and her husband are earning far more than almost all faculty and certainly far more than I. There’s an enormous gulf separating Ms.Coico and the adjuncts who can’t actually rely on being paid their pennies on time. Suffice to say that Ms. Coico is likely blissfully aware of that gulf and our problems, and much more painfully aware on the enormous gulf separating her and her husband from the world-class grifters she aspires to join, which I suggest is her principal preoccupation.

As the CEO, a large part of her job is groveling for cash before the truly rich. This has to wear on her. And as we’ve learned, only partisan imbeciles believe that candidate X is the only wealthy person paying well to ensure he/she pays the absolute minimum in taxes, and who (occasionally) moves into the ‘grey’ areas of compliance. See senior civil servants at both the state and national level.

There are, like it or not, two sets of rules in America, whether that makes America a tin-pot dictatorship or no. If one happens to be poor and a minority one can expect to face the full brunt of the law for even the smallest infraction. And that’s if you’re not beaten, or shot by ‘accident’ along the way. If you’re wealthy and white, you can do whatever you like until and after, in many cases, you get caught.

The reason, I suggest, that those charged with supervising Ms. Coico did not act earlier is that they did not wish to attract any unwanted legal scrutiny into their own practices, those of their peers, and especially of the donor class who fork over part of the class.

It’s their world, we just live in it.


kidneystones 10.11.16 at 3:42 am

Part of class? Yes, why not that too.

William Timberman puts his finger right into the wound.


Sebastian H 10.11.16 at 5:01 am

The whole thing is crazy, but I can’t get past the $20,000 security deposit for a rental home.

What kind of a house is that?


Louis Proyect 10.11.16 at 11:19 am

Interesting that she was hired to boost the science department based on her own scientific background. Remind you of another college president out in Illinois?


Alex SL 10.11.16 at 5:35 pm

As a non-native speaker of English, I am wondering not for the first time about how the term corrupt is used in the English world. Is it not correct that corruption means taking money (or some other form of payment) in exchange for doing somebody an undeserved favour, e.g. a professor accepting money to pass a student who should really have been failed? I would have thought that what is described here was embezzlement instead?

Sorry if this is not the most productive contribution, but I am wondering.


steve 10.11.16 at 7:12 pm

Corruption is a general term for premeditated unethical actions. Embezzlement would be a specific criminal change.


J-D 10.11.16 at 8:58 pm

I think it’s common for ‘corruption’ to be used to refer to the misuse of official authority for private benefit; so if somebody has official authority to expend funds for stipulated purposes, and misuses that authority to expend some of those funds for a private benefit unconnected with those stipulated purposes, that could be described as corrupt conduct.


CCNY Drudge 10.12.16 at 12:50 am

What you don’t mention but is how despicable it is that a high level administrator tried to set up two low level employees with no decision authority with a faked document. Yes, CUNY administrators should be held accountable for their non-action and sticking their heads in the sand, but don’t exonerate the CCNY faculty who closed their eyes for the ethical problems and remained silent, just because of their comfortable teaching hours under this president or other perks, or just because they didn’t want to rock the boat, just grumble at the water cooler. They had the academic freedom and union protection, and the majority of them did nothing. They were like the Republican Party facing Trump.


Karl Kolchack 10.12.16 at 1:01 am

A professional colleague of mine was prosecuted and fired for falsifying a relocation voucher…for a grand total of around $2200. Of course, this was way back in 1991, when such garbage was far less tolerated that it seems to be these days.


Alex SL 10.12.16 at 8:48 am



LaRoi Lawton 10.12.16 at 2:12 pm

This demonstrates on so many levels how administrators within CUNY are so poorly managed to the point where they create their own “Game of Thrones.” It is no wonder why the current Governor of New York has a negative opinion of CUNY and wants a deeper look at our administrative levels across CUNY. You can bet your last dollar that what the former CCNY President has done, has also infected many of the departments within CCNY and across CUNY. This was no anomaly. The seeds were planted ions ago and watered by the City and State at the expense of our students CUNY was meant to help.


Library Love 10.12.16 at 4:37 pm

This sickens me to no end. I’m a librarian at CCNY and I have taken money out of my own pocket for office supplies etc. for my office and for students. This is just disgusting. I knew she was up to something but I had no idea it was this bad.


Procopius 10.13.16 at 7:07 am

La Roi Lawton @ 16 I’m puzzled why the “current governor of New York” should have a negative opinion of CUNY. Are you saying he thinks they were doing a bush league job of looting and should be replaced with more competent looters? Or do you mean he feels he wasn’t getting a fair share of the rip-off? As more of his partners get sent to jail, perhaps he feels he needs to feather his own nest better while he still has the chance.


bruce wilder 10.14.16 at 10:12 pm

What kind of a house is that?

Assuming the security deposit is for two months rent, then she’s renting a ~$1.7+ million house. Depending on the neighborhood, ~$1.7 million may not be that impressive. In Larchmont, N.Y., it’s roughly 5 bedrooms, 4 baths. If you want to entertain people for the weekend, . . .

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