Interview with CUNY New Community College President Scott E. Evenbeck Transcribed by Zara Jamshed
Dr. Scott Evenbeck, the inaugural president of the soon-to-be newest community college in the CUNY system, took time to chat with Education Update publisher Dr. Pola Rosen at his office on the college campus across the street from the 42nd Street library. Dr. Evenbeck described the students’ academic cohort groups and a reality- and experience-based curriculum at New Community College, which is the name of the institution. The idea of the groups and this particular curriculum was implemented at Indiana University under Dr. Evenbeck. In the last 16 years, according to Dr. Evenbeck, the graduation rate more than doubled.
Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): Perhaps it’s a special symbol that you are right across the street from one of the greatest landmarks and resources and erudite centers in New York City, the 42nd street library. There are two lions guarding the entrance and I’m sure President Evenbeck, you will do just as good a job guarding this new college. So the name of your new college, and it’s a new community college, is called the New Community College; I’m just wondering whether you plan to continue with that name or will the name change?
President Scott Evenbeck (SE): I expect the name will change, sometime in the future. We would hope to honor a leader, someone with a strong commitment to education, but I always wanted to keep the concept “new” in how we describe our work and how we describe our mission. We always want to continue to reinvent ourselves and let that be a hallmark of our work so even when we take another name, we’ll continue to refer to ourselves as a “new” community college.
PR: That’s a great philosophy. I know you are newly arrived from Indiana University and you’ve done some innovative and phenomenal things there. I want to ask you about some of your initiatives there and how you’ve improved student performance and increased graduation rates at Indiana University.
SE: I think the most important thing that we did there was to have faculty and staff work together to reengineer the beginning students’ complete experience. Rather than waiting until the start of school, most of the students start in the summer program. When they entered in the fall semester, they had a coordinated curriculum where they took their classes in cohort groups taught by an instructional team of a faculty member, an academic advisor, a student mentor, and a librarian. That cohort of students moved to other classes together and that course also included service experience. After the student got started, they had a coherent curriculum rather than what students often experience, which is a random set of courses that are not coordinated and where they don’t know anyone. We saw really good changes in the bottom line through that series of programs.
PR:How years did that program exist?
SE: We started in 1995 so 16 years. We more than doubled the graduation rate and we can attribute that to what happened to the students in the first year for the most part.
PR: I know you’ve written a book about helping sophomores succeed. Do you feel the first year is more crucial for success then the second year?
SE: Right because if they don’t make it through the first year, they won’t get to the second year. And so there’s been this huge wave led by John Garner, who used to be at the University of South Carolina to help institutions, faculty and staff really focus in on the first year. So that’s what we did back in Indiana and that’s very clearly what the planning committee envisions for New Community College: to really have a coordinated, thoughtful curriculum in the first year, so that students make it to the second year, and then once they’re in the second year, one of the things that happened on many campuses is to think “well we fixed everything in the first year, so the second year will take care of itself” and that isn’t the case.
PR:Does the cohort stay together for year one and year two?
SE: No, in the learning communities, the cohort stays together. At New Community College, we will have cohorts though stay together to some extent over the whole first year.
PR:So will there be a core curriculum here at the New Community College?
SE: There will be. All the students will come to a bridge program, a three-week block program in the summer where we’ll work with them on reading, writing, math, but also to talk with them about our expectations for what it takes for them to be successful. We’ll have a group of student mentors who work with them as peers and supporting their learning. Then in the first semester, the center piece of the curriculum is called the City Seminar, which has three components: a reading-writing component, a quantitative reasoning component; the innovative part will be based on interdisciplinary case studies based upon life in New York City. Immigration, sustainability, and things that are intrinsically interesting to the students that come to life in this city will be what the students are studying. The curriculum will be integrated so the things they are thinking and talking about in the reading and writing component will be related to case study as will what they do with quantitative reasoning. It’s an approach to get the students engaged in their learning, to have them to be able to take advantage of living in New York City and to help them construct the knowledge to do some field work. Their beginning math course will be a statistics course and they’ll also have a course we’re calling “Ethnographies of Work.” This will also be in the learning community in a common curriculum for the students and the motto behind that is “You came here to get a degree to get a job and we honor the fact that that’s your family’s expectation for you.” We want the students to be able to get jobs and we want them to go on and get a baccalaureate degree.
PR:When you said the term “case history”, did you mean legal cases? Did you mean going back into the history of New York City?
SE: Well the cases that the faculty has begun thus far include one on immigration. So it’s what is immigration about in New York City? Where did folks come from? What have been historical patterns of immigration? It gives such rich possibilities with the curriculum for half the people who live in New York City are immigrants and so they can talk with folks who are immigrants if they aren’t themselves and the class can come alive for them. Another case history is sustainability. And another is consumerism. These are really important issues that permeate life in New York City and so the students will be able to look through the lens of sociology and anthropology while they’re studying. They’ll be able to go right across the street to the New York Public Library and access primary sources. It’s going to be terrific.
PR:Has anyone ever done this before in the city university system or in community colleges?
SE: Brooklyn College has fantastic work where the students are doing work on the Gowanus Canal. I think that the CUNY campuses have done a fantastic job with students being engaged with the city. What we’re going to do at New Community College is to ramp it up so all the beginning students have that rich opportunity.
PR: And did you do something similar at Indiana U?
SE: I taught a course for many years called Discover Indianapolis. What we did in our first year seminar was to center on the city of Indianapolis. The students all read the newspaper every class. Then they had to pick an article which addressed a social issue in which they had particular interest and write an essay based upon their analysis of that issue. At the end of the semester, they had to write a letter to the editor based upon the series of essays they’d written throughout the semester. It was a really good way to get them engaged with reading the newspaper, centering in on key issues affecting the community and my aspiration is that we’ll do the same thing here. Students aren’t bringing the habit of reading newspapers, and it’s such a critically important part of being a citizen.
PR: Well I couldn’t agree more as a newspaper publisher. I came across an interesting statistic. The community colleges at CUNY have seen at 40 percent increase over the past decade in terms of student enrollment. There are six community colleges, this will be number seven, but now there are 85,000 students at the community colleges. That’s enough for a small city!
SE: Enrollment is surging, particularly in Manhattan. I think that’s why the CUNY leadership decided that an appropriate location was on Manhattan, because other boroughs have two community colleges and now Manhattan will have two community colleges.
PR: To what do you attribute this enormous rise in the community college enrollment?
SE: Around the world there’s widening participation in higher education, of recognition by family members and young people and returning adult students that they’re not going to be able to participate in the economy without simple secondary education. And particularly in New York City so many of the students are low income, first generation; they’re immigrants, they represent diversity and they’re going to define the future of the city.
PR: Here another interesting quote that I came across, and it was your quote actually, “The model is grounded in not what the students bring to campus but in a design developed to ensure student success.” I love that sentence. So what will that design for success be?
SE: It will include integrated academic support. So for instance, rather than telling students, “Well you should go see your advisor,” the advisor is going to be part of the instructional team and the student will be in the classroom with the academic advisor every week. Rather than telling the students “Well go find these materials in the library”, the librarians will help structure the syllabus so that students get engaged with primary sources as an integral part of the curriculum. I think information literacy is an incredibly important issue in our society especially with the increased use of the web and students not having the tools to be able to sort through much of that information. Part of what will be embedded in the curriculum is careful attention to information literacy. Students will be able to wind their way through information and for instance, be able to identify the primary sources. In the first year, for students who will be required to be here full time, one component of the curriculum is Group Workspace which is a time for students to focus in on working together to learn the material. So rather than the typical thing, “Well I’ll take this class, and this class, and this class and maybe fit in this class,” the students will have an integrated curriculum where they’ll be here a defined set of hours with the same set of students in a common curriculum, working in a group workspace where they will support one another.
PR: We are very focused now at Education Update on technology. Will you be using that kind of technology collaborative approach to teach the students the different things out there that they can use?
SE: Absolutely. We have our CIOs up in Boston, they had a conference on electronic portfolios, and one of our important tasks over the next month is to sort out which electronic portfolio will work best for our students. Electronic portfolios will be a place where they will show where they’ve been, where they are, where they want to go, what their career aspirations are. They’ll be able to put up samples of their work and reflect on it. But others also will be able to give them feedback. This can be used as a way for the student to tell a story of his or her learning to somebody else, a potential employer, a graduate school. I think we’re going to see an incredible surge in the use of electronic portfolios as a way not only to document learning, but for students to be able to share with others.
PR: You also mentioned the word a service component. Can you elaborate on that?
SE: I think college students have always done community service, like helping in a soup kitchen or serving the homeless, or work in a literacy program. Over the last 15 or 20 years, an incredibly important component of higher education has become service learning, where it’s not only doing the service, but after the service, students being asked to reflect upon what they learned as a function of that service. I argue that implementation of service learning has been transformational for higher education.
PR: Is there anything else you would like to say about the new campus and your new goal here in New York City?
SE: Well I always wanted to live in New York, and I’m glad I finally got to live here. I’ve been able to visit the other six community colleges, which do incredibly good work. All of them have strong national reputations and what I think is exciting is how the CUNY leadership decided to distil the best elements that work and decide: “We’re going to open a new community college where there will be singular attention to student success.”
PR: How will students be able to enroll if they read this article or see this program on YouTube or our website, educationupdate.com?
SE: CUNY has a common application and once we’re approved by the governor, we’ll be listed on that common application. We’re going to open up with 500 students.
PR: So will it be by lottery or by interview?
SE: We’re going to do interviews, but the interviews are for the students to find out what we’re about. About how we’re full time, about how we have a limited number of majors, about how we have a distinctive approach to the curriculum so they can make the decision about whether we’re the right match for them. It’s not us making a decision about whether we’re going to admit them. The interview process is really for the student to gain information about us. If we have many more applicants than we have spots, we may have to move to a lottery admission. We want to make very good decisions so that we have a representative student body.#