COLLEGE PRESIDENTS SERIES President Lisa Staiano-Coico, The City College of New York By Joan Baum, Ph.D.
Introducing Dr. Lisa Staiano-Coico, the newly appointed president of The City College of New York, the first-ever CUNY alumna to assume this office at the 163-year-old college, Matthew Goldstein, the CUNY chancellor, reiterated the “crucial” importance in having “visionary, energetic” people in top positions at CUNY. His adjectives were underscored by Charles Shorter, a trustee, who chaired the search committee that selected Dr. Staiano-Coico, a Brooklyn College graduate, to be City College’s 12th president. In Dr. Staiano-Coico, he said, the college gets a “superstar,” not only a scientist with fine credentials, but a passionate leader. Indeed, in a recent interview with Education Update, President Staiano-Coico’s passion and purpose were on articulate and energetic display.
She reiterated remarks made in her acceptance speech, reaffirming her dedication to “leadership, discovery and impact.” Expanding briefly on each of these, she noted that by “leadership” she meant “collective leadership,” with all members of the academic community working to promote partnerships on campus and between campus and community to ensure that City College students have a “collective impact” on the world. In her talk with Education Update she acknowledged that the biggest challenge facing all CUNY colleges is “the shrinking budget,” which means doing more with less, but she sees the problem as a prompt “to be strategic, to prioritize.”
Her top goal, she says, is to increase graduation and retention rates, and she is pursuing various enrollment and tracking tactics to this end. Her second goal, to support the faculty, is already under way in the form of RFPs for ten grants to encourage collaboration among faculty from different disciplines. Her third goal is to strengthen partnerships with the community, both local and citywide, an initiative that includes offering scholarships to high school students in the area and continuing an impressive internship program where students not only serve in community agencies but incorporate what they’ve learned back into their academic lives. A fourth goal is to energize the alumni, role models of working men and women who have made it. She mentions how surprised students are to learn that her own early work in science was as a lowly lab technician and gofer. “That’s how you start making your dreams come true.”
Although President Staiano-Coico spoke about her interest in the sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts, she reinforced Chancellor Goldstein’s theme that “this is the decade of science.” Psychology is the most popular major on campus, but it is the forthcoming Advanced Science Research Center at City College that has the president’s major attention and that, in the spirit of interdisciplinary study, will incorporate the other disciplines as it moves to become “the jewel in the CUNY decade of the sciences crown,” a research center for both undergraduates and graduate students. She believes it is a life-changing moment when a student gets excited about science — it certainly was for her when a dynamic biology teacher confirmed for her what her early reading of a book about rocks and minerals sparked — that she loved science. It was unusual, she recalled, for a girl from Brooklyn to have been so motivated, but she credits her mother and father for being supportive. The earlier students become exposed to science and first-class scientists, the better. Her most rewarding moments have been — and will continue to be — seeing students who began in a lab move on to major careers in medicine and science, “pursuing their dreams.”
To the goal of promoting science, Dr. Staiano-Coico couldn’t have come more prepared as both researcher and administrator. Her recent work on alcohol and drug abuse prevention for first-year college students is continuing. Though immersed in her new administrative life, she regularly attends meetings with colleagues from Cornell and Temple and now CUNY to discuss findings about prevention programs in urban settings. And she speaks whenever she can to high school students about how “drugs and alcohol can derail their lives.” City College has residence halls, where some youngsters will be on their own for the first time and will perhaps be vulnerable, especially to alcohol. She wants to add more residence hall counselors and develop more programs that will “de-stigmatize” the problems of drugs and alcohol and integrate research data and outreach activities.
She is, and will continue to be, a hands-on CEO. She meets with students every second Tuesday of the month at an open table in the cafeteria (“what, only two microwaves?”), holding town hall meetings and inviting students to her house for dinner. For sure, she will be able to talk to them about more than science. A Stieg Larsson fan and a lover of Thomas Hardy, she exhibits the broad and deep learning she would inspire in others. Respice, Adspice, Prospice, as the City College motto has it: Look back, look at, look ahead. #