Exclusive Interview with Jennifer Raab, President of Hunter College
President Jennifer Raab has been a powerful force at the helm of Hunter College. She has accomplished an incredible number of things, all of which personify the motto of the college, “mihi cura futuri,” the care of the future is mine. Dr. Pola Rosen, Publisher of Education Update sat down with President Raab recently to discuss the many happenings at Hunter College. Their discussion can be found exclusively in Education Update.
Dr. Pola Rosen (PR): You opened the doors of Hunter College to the victims and the homeless from Hurricane Sandy. Can you tell us a little about that?
Pres. Jennifer Raab (JR): Hurricane Sandy was quite a challenge for us at Hunter College. We had committed to the city that we would house a shelter for those displayed from the storm. So, we had about two hundred people in our gymnasium. We served meals. We had many visitors from the city who wanted to work with the people and to help support them. We even set-up an animal shelter, although I don’t think any animals came. A big challenge for us was that our renowned nursing school, which is on Twenty Sixth Street and First Avenue, was totally flooded by Sandy. So overnight, we realized that this storm was more severe than we expected. We lost all of the facilities on the campus. Our physical therapy programs and the entire nursing and medical lab programs had to be moved. Within hours, we were making plans to relocate our one hundred and sixty classes a week. Hurricane victims took over every inch of Hunter College’s main campus, either from the Brookdale Campus or from the homeless in the city. Then, we had six hundred students who were in our Brookdale dorms, and we were able to find emergency housing for probably about a hundred of them over the following few months. In addition, we hosted faculty and staff members who also lost their homes or had great damage. We raised about a hundred thousand dollars to support our own students and some emergency grants to our faculty and staff who had real financial need. That showed us that the care of the future really is ours. We were proud.
PR: Well, I am sure that those individuals will never forget the time that they’ve spent here at Hunter just as the Coopermans never forgot their time here. Indeed, the Cooperman family recently donated one of the largest gifts in the history of CUNY, a gift of twenty five million dollars to Hunter. Tell us a little bit about the new library here—which is fabulous.
JR: I will start with this wonderful couple, the Coopermans. They did meet at our Bronx campus, in French class—which I guess is very romantic. They both remember when Hunter College was twenty-four dollars a semester; I think that is where they got the twenty-five million dollar idea from. She was the president of the student government and he was the vice president, and he likes to remind us of that. He went on to become a very successful businessman. When I met him, I asked what his Hunter story was and what Hunter meant to him. He told me a wonderful story. He was a kid from the Bronx and his father was a plumber. He was a chemistry major, physics minor and he got through Hunter in three years because he was so smart. He was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania’s Dental School, and he got the last seat there. He took the last scholarship. He went to his very poor parents and said, “I need money to buy dental instruments to practice on and I need to engrave them with my initials.” Well, within two weeks of his time at the University of Pennsylvania, he decided that this really wasn’t for him. So, you can imagine the disappointed people at Penn, who had given him the last scholarship and the last seat and his rather upset parents who spent their last money on these rather expensive dental instruments. The Hunter dean at the time took him back, and said, “You are an extraordinary student and perhaps you made a wrong career choice. What do you want to learn? You finished all your requirements. You went through them very quickly.” I was always interested in economics and business, he said. So, he took two semesters of economics courses, graduated and went on to incredible success in business. It was a wonderful memory of what Hunter did for him. This gift is very important to us in so many ways. First of all, it is quite a model for other Hunter alums, and for many in the city, of what you could do to support a public college. He really wanted to make a statement of leadership in this gift, in which others should follow. The other message was that Lee Cooperman is one of the best value investors. He will buy a stock low because he thinks it is going to go up. So when Lee Cooperman says, “Hunter, you are a good investment,” that is very meaningful. The third thing, which is very, very important, is that philanthropy is something that we all have to learn. Lee and Toby have sent this message that you have to pay it forward, that you need to know what Hunter is giving you, and when you can—in whatever way you can—you need to give back, as well. So we know that there is another Lee Cooperman in the library studying today. Each time they go into the Cooperman Library, the gift says to them, “When you make it, you have to give back, as well.”
PR: It is a wonderful message.
JR: You asked a little about the library, and I think it is a wonderful conversation to have these days, because so many people think that libraries must be passé. Even when I was speaking with Mr. and Mrs. Cooperman for this support, they also asked that question, because we all know that so much of our material is now online. The truth is, the most checked-out item in the Hunter Library are the laptops. Students are coming in, and they don’t have laptops at home or they do not have the quality needed. They want to come and study on the laptops. They are accessing books and all sorts of websites and databases. It is not that traditional to go to the stacks and pick-up a book now, but the demand for the library is increasing. We are a commuter school. So, students are caught between the subways and the buses. Almost all of our students are working, so they are going on to work. What a library does is that it says, “This is a place where you can study. This is where we respect you as a student. We’ve invested in you as a student, as a researcher, as a scholar, as a future leader. We are going to provide a wonderful, quiet and supportive environment for you to do your work. It’s also not your mother’s library.” Libraries today are really student success centers. We are moving all of our tutor centers, our writing center, our math support and our science learning centers into the library, to help students reach their potential. We are moving our pre-professional programs into the library. We have a wonderful program for pre-law, pre-med, and for pre-business, which Mr. Cooperman also helped us start. The library is being re-imagined, but for a commuter school to have a center that values a student for their real commitment to their work, nothing could be more important.
PR: I could not agree more. There is another person who feels gratitude to Hunter College and his name is Stephen Freeman, the CEO of YAI, an organization the helps thousands of people who are developmentally handicapped. He is so grateful to Hunter because that is where he got his social work degree. Which brings me to the topic of the Social Work school in Harlem, which is doing wonderful things. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
JR: I think Stephen personifies that Hunter mission. We were very proud to induct him into our Hunter Hall of Fame a few years back, as one of the hundreds of social work alums that are really doing so much for the needy in New York City. It’s really incredible. The school also came also out of a great philanthropic story. Buddy Silverman was one of the great New Yorkers who believed also in giving back. He actually bought the townhouse next to him on 79th street and tore down that town house, and his own, and built us a school of social work on 79th street that opened in 1970. We began to outgrow it and we also felt it would be really important for the Hunter social workers to be in a neighborhood where they could really make a hands-on difference. Through a very complicated and interesting real estate swap, Dan Brodsky, a wonderful New York City Developer, built us that wonderful new building on 119 Street and Third Avenue that houses the Silverman School of Social Work, the Hunter School of Public Health, the Brookdale Center on Aging, and Central Archives of Puerto Rican Studies. We were able to bring all of that into the East Harlem neighborhood, when Mr. Brodsky finished that building. He then allowed us to take the 79th street side and turn it into a wonderful residential project. So both sides have really benefitted. The deal won “Real Estate Deal of the Year.” We were proud of that because it was a very creative way for a university to have a private-public partnership. The result is just flourishing. Our social work school has been growing, both in numbers and in ranking. We trained people to work both with individuals, with groups, to do organizing communities and our outreach has spread all through the east Harlem area. Most importantly, we’re really partnering with our school of public health, which is there and bringing in our education school and our nursing school. We have a very clear mission that I charge all of these schools with. How does a school like Hunter come into an underserved neighborhood and make sure we are helping this neighborhood in a decade or so become healthier, become better educated, and become more socially secure? That is our mission and that will be how we measure ourselves. We must add value in that neighborhood, as we train the next generation of caring professionals.
PR: There can’t be a higher mission than that. This real estate deal was an incredibly astute thing to do and you engineered this. Can you tell us more?
JR: I have a certain passion for real estate. For a very long time, since I began twelve years ago, the thing that the faculty was most in need of was a new science facility. We have one of the most extraordinary missions in science because we do incredible research, particularly for a public college. We have more NIH funding than any school in New York State without a medical school and we do it in a really important way because of the diversity of our scientists. The fact that our biology department is about one third women and a third underrepresented minorities scientists means not only do we have brilliant scientists that produce great research, but there are also extraordinary role models. We have that STEM pipeline that everyone is talking about, the need for more women and minorities in science. We are doing that at Hunter College. We are number two in our classification in this country for women getting doctorates and number nine for African American students going on to get a PhD. That is truly extraordinary, but we had a challenge. The granting agency would come in and say, “Brilliant faculty, brilliant proposals and wonderful students, but your facilities are maybe a C-, D.” We were working in a 1939 building, which has proven to be really difficult to renovate to the standards of modern science. We didn’t have enough space, and the space we had was low quality. We had to find a place to build. We are in one of the most expensive neighborhoods where there’s very little available real estate. We wanted to keep our science on site so that we could continue to excite students about science. The solution was that we did another kind of swap where we’ve given the city our downtown campus for nursing in order for them to build a new sanitation garage, and they have given us the site of the sanitation garage on 74th street and the East River to build with Memorial-Sloan Kettering. It will be an incredible complex of health care delivery, of science research, education and learning. Our science researchers will go into that new building and our nurses and physical therapists, as well. For Hunter to be such a critical part of the East Side corridor for health care delivery, and for science research to celebrate our partnership with Weill Cornell and Memorial Sloan Kettering, is just an incredible thing.
PR: Cornell Weill and Sloan Kettering, you can’t get better partners than that in science and research and caring. I wanted to talk incidentally about medicine. You’ve had two women who are Nobel Laureates from Hunter.
JR: We are the only school in the world to have two women Nobel prizewinners in medicine—and I know that there’s a third in this building.
PR: I wanted to talk about the fact that you have been cited in the “50 Most Powerful Women in New York City” list. How does that make you feel? Do you eat your Wheaties in the morning?
JR: It is nice to read that. When you go home though, you know that it is probably just what is written in the paper, and not the reality. I remember when I was first appointed, the phone rang and my daughter was about seven then. She lifted the receiver and said “President Raab? Hah!” So I think that you always have to remember that.
PR: Another wonderful thing that you did is the field of art. You now have the Tribeca Art Gallery, and none other than the great grandson of Camille Pissarro. You’re everywhere! In the arts, sciences, music, the theater and at the Danny Kaye Playhouse, what is left for you to do?
JR: I think the next focus is to continue investing in our students so that they can take advantage of these amazing facilities for the arts. The challenge is, since so many students are from families where they are first generation college students, often English is a second language. They are commuting. They are working. How do we make sure Hunter does all that it can do to serve this student body—to invest in them, get that great education, and help them graduate to go on to be great successes in this world?
PR: There is one other legacy I wanted to ask you about, and that has to do with another great name in history and politics, President Roosevelt, FDR, and his wife—and of course, his mother. They had Roosevelt House, which is just a few blocks away from Hunter. Tell us what happened to Roosevelt House and where it is today?
JR: It is a wonderful story in history. Franklin and Eleanor got married and Sara, Franklin’s mother, had some reservations about Eleanor to begin with, so she bought and built them a home as their wedding present in 1908. The one stipulation was that she got to keep half of the house for herself. We like to call that the “first New Deal.” They moved in and that is where they had five children. They later moved to Albany and then to Washington. Sara always lived in the same home so they would always come back. It was very much the place of their early marriage. It becomes very important in history in 1921, because that is when Franklin comes down with polio and becomes paralyzed. The house had an elevator, which was very unusual at that time. He could find a measure of independence in that home. He built himself a hand-operated wheel chair and navigated the house, and that is where he brought back his political career. He ran for governor in 1928, when he lived in the house. Most importantly—and most compelling—in 1932, he planned his presidential campaign. He comes home from the Biltmore Hotel to find his mom, Sara, on the stairs. She greets him as the president-elect and says, “This is the happiest day of my life.” From November to March of 1933, the New Deal was planned in this house. This is where Eleanor said to Franklin, “You should really have a woman cabinet secretary.” Frances Perkins writes in her memoir about being invited to the house, and talks about how it was a little bit disorganized, because Eleanor was not the best housekeeper. She describes how Franklin made her the offer to be the first woman cabinet secretary, and she said she would do it, but only if he created a social safety net for this country which ultimately became social security. Hunter ends up buying the house in 1943, after the Roosevelts moved to the White House, because Eleanor and the Hunter students developed a relationship when they lived there. They loved Hunter and they said, “Buy the house at $50,000,” which was a great price at the time. The Roosevelts donated the first thousand dollars to the purchase. Hunter used it as an interfaith center, which was really FDR and Eleanor’s vision. We had the Hillel. We had the Newman Club, and many other clubs. We really used it until we could use it no more. It fell into terrible disrepair by 1990 and it had to be closed. I knew about the house from my former days working in preservation. When I came to Hunter, I was committed to finding a way to open the house, restore it, and turn into a public policy institute for the college. It is so gratifying today to see the faculty working on research there, but perhaps even more to see the students engaged in two incredible programs. One is in public policy and one in human rights in the honor of Franklin and Eleanor, and then to have such wonderful programs for our students and community. Everyone from Bill Gates to Bill Clinton to Ban Ki Moon has spoken and engaged with our students. What an inspiration to be able to tell the students they are in the home of some of the most important social justice leaders that our country was ever seen, and meet these incredible leaders of today to inspire them to live that Hunter motto about being responsible for the care of the future.
PR: What a wonderful note to end on. I want to congratulate you on bringing together so many different communities of people and endeavors, as well as academic disciplines. It is wonderful.
JR: It is an incredible privilege to be in this position where you are looking at the next generation, seeing how you can contribute to making them the leaders that our city—and our country—definitely need.#