CUNY Vice Chancellor Iris Weinshall: Reshaping the University
Vice chancellor for facilities planning, construction and management Iris Weinshall’s easy-going and amiable manner belies the dynamic force that keeps her constantly on the move to ensure the efficient maintenance and operation of CUNY’s 23 campuses and to initiate, superintend, and implement budgeted developments for the physical plant. The mandate is daunting, requiring financial and technical expertise, not to mention negotiating experience, especially in consensus building, in both the private and public sectors. Weinshall, who recently sat down with Education Update in her Manhattan office, has been on the job since April 2007, and comes with those skills and more — humor, a down-to-earth approach, and analytical abilities that suggest earlier success as an administrator for the city of New York for 25 years, including being commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation in 2000 and special transportation advisor to Mayor Bloomberg in 2003.
A cum laude graduate of Brooklyn College, with a master’s in public administration from NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, Weinshall is excited about prospects related to CUNY chancellor Matthew Goldstein’s “decade of the sciences” and his call for a “state of good repair” on all the campuses. Although architectural plans for new buildings easily generate excitement, much of the vice chancellor’s work has to do with the unglamorous and the invisible — infrastructure. The average age of a CUNY building, she points out, is 50 years, hardly suitable for a major university that prides itself on labs devoted to state-of-the-art research and lab-supported instruction. Reviews, she says, have revealed serious problems universitywide, which she has been addressing and will continue to address with state funding, making CUNY one of the top employers in the city, if not the state.
Buildings that have enjoyed renovation testify to her perseverance by way of dramatic before-and-after photos, “night and day” the vice chancellor adds. Major projects under construction (eleven at last count), such as CUNY’s universitywide Advanced Science Research Center to be housed at City College, also testify to the imaginative and bold ways in which CUNY expects to meet the challenges of the 21st century, not to mention more than meet aesthetic expectations. “I want people to look up [at the new buildings] and say, ‘Wow! That’s part of CUNY!’ ”
Much of her time, Weinshall says, is spent visiting the campuses, “all my babies,” and talking with administrators, faculty and students about master-plan priorities. She wants to make sure progress is being made, and she likes to talk to contractors on site. Several projects are the work of well-known architects and design firms, but it should be noted that community colleges receive attention along with the seniors colleges. I.M. Pei’s plan for a new Fitterman Hall at Borough of Manhattan Community College (the first new building in 40 years) adorns the new cover of the hefty Five-Year Capital Plan Request FY 2010-11 Through FY 2014-15 and New York City Reso-A Request FY 2011 [smaller-scale projects and equipment purchases as determined by the city council and borough presidents]. A bold, experimental new community college (NCC), with full-time students only, is slated for Upper Manhattan and has as its goal improving graduation rates.
There is also serious talk of dorms, residence halls at Queens and City having proved their attraction, as applications soar for places in the Honors College, for example. Noteworthy also among approved projects is a new home for a more accessible CUNY Law School, which will relocate to Long Island City as part of a public/private partnership with Citicorp. Common to all capital projects is a commitment to being “green,” to designs that sit comfortably in their surrounding communities, and to initiatives in science that reflect strengths already identified in college curricula, such as Lehman’s celebrated programs in earth sciences and botany or New York City Tech’s in health sciences.
It’s clear in just brief conversation that the vice chancellor, who describes herself as “tenacious, organized, committed,” enjoys her work. She particularly loves seeing “a product at the end of the day,” and she feels grateful for having had mentors along the way, including Mayor Bloomberg, who taught her how to work within a large bureaucracy. #