Dr. Ann Kirschner Heads CUNY Honors College
“Honors” is a much-abused word in the academic world, often designating intent or longevity, but at The City University of New York’s five-year-old Honors College, distinction is not a ceremonial award but earned admission and curricular achievement. The data speak for themselves: the Honors College—actually a consortium of seven senior colleges in the CUNY system—boasts a 40 percent increase in applications over last year, with an average GPA rate of 93.8; 1266 students (called University Scholars), up from an original 208; a retention rate of approximately 90 percent and an enviable job-placement and graduate and professional school acceptance record. And for those who think that excellence and diversity cannot enhance each other, it should be noted that 41 percent of the College’s enrollment last fall was non-white, with a high number of first-generation immigrants speaking a multitude of languages. Dr. Ann Kirschner, who hails from both a traditional academic background and the private sector is thrilled—one hears the excitement in her voice—at the opportunity to build on an already prestigious program and to move the Honors College forward at a time especially of “seismic shifts” in technology and communication.
Vigor and youthful enthusiasm inform Dr. Kirschner’s articulation of goals. When asked why she thinks she was selected to be the Honors College’s third dean, she pauses, laughs, then notes that administrators these days must have “stamina” and a “willingness to listen and learn,” qualities that no doubt reflect her personal and professional life. The daughter of a survivor—her book, Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story, has just been published by Simon & Schuster’s Free Press—Dr. Kirschner, who has a Ph.D. in English from Princeton, and hails from Queens, left the academic world some 20 years ago to pursue management consulting in the private sector, specializing in digital media and online learning in higher education. She brings to CUNY an impressive resume in developing for-profit and not-for-profit collaborative strategies in this country and abroad. She modestly does not mention that New York Magazine named her a “Millennium New Yorker” and Crain’s New York Business a “Top Technology Leader.”
The seven colleges that constitute the CUNY Honors College are Brooklyn, CCNY, Queens, The College of Staten Island, Hunter, Lehman and Baruch, the last three with the largest program enrollments. The College is a typical undergraduate institution, drawing its University Scholars directly from NYC high schools (women only slightly outnumber men). The students are obviously attracted by the College’s guarantee of full financial support, a $7,500 study grant, free laptops and a cultural passport that provides free and discounted access to the city’s leading cultural and scientific institutions. Though the program offers counseling and mentoring, students are apparently confident about working in an interdisciplinary environment and with flexible format. Known for its “flagship” seminar programs, the Honors College focuses much of its curriculum on the city itself by way of courses and internships and a requirement that all students perform at least 30 hours of public service. Dean Kirschner, whose advocacy of technology is to be expected, nonetheless expresses a healthy critical regard of online learning. She values the College’s relative smallness (she’d like to keep enrollment close to its present count) and face-to-face learning. On the job for only three months, she’s looking “with deliberate speed” to expanding the College’s prestigious Study Abroad programs, especially in developing countries, and at home, to improving the sense of a unified academic community.
Central to the at-home initiatives will be the opening next fall of The William Macaulay Honors College Center at 35 W. 67th, a renovated townhouse that will finally bring together the College’s “cross campus cohort” by way of various social and intellectual activities. A “dedicated space” at last, sighs the dean, “technology centered, with smart classrooms for video conferencing and web casting,” and a place where students can just get together. Of course, they have access to CUNY’s stellar faculty, but they should also be able to learn from one another as “peer learners,” she says. Mr. Macaulay, incidentally, is a graduate of CUNY and a strong supporter of Chancellor Goldstein’s initiatives to address local, national and global needs and to strengthen higher education management. Toward this latter end, the appointment of Dean Kirschner would seem to be exemplary. Her concluding words are instructive. She quotes the Talmudic adage: I have learned much from my teachers, and from my colleagues more than from my teachers, but from my students more than from them all.”