Night of the Hunter: College in Chaos After Raab’s Hire

On the afternoon of Feb. 14, Hunter College’s first senate meeting of the year came to order in room 714W of the Hunter West Building on Lexington Avenue. As 100 or so senators–Hunter students, staff and faculty who are elected to shape the college’s academic policy–and community members filed into the wood-paneled auditorium, the tension and excitement were palpable. Everyone seemed to be clutching or reading from copies of a document that had been posted the previous day on the college’s online bulletin board, the “Hunter L.”

The document, which was being passed out at the entrance to the auditorium, was entitled “Resolution of No Confidence,” and essentially it stated that the academic community at Hunter, a branch of the publicly funded City University of New York, had lost all faith in CUNY’s board of trustees since it had appointed former city Landmarks Preservation Commission chair Jennifer Raab as the new president of Hunter College on Jan. 29. Ms. Raab, a woman with strong professional ties to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but few of the credentials required to run a university, had been given the job over the objection of its chancellor, its faculty and its students after a rather controversial search process in which she appeared to have been inserted–under extraordinary pressure from Mr. Giuliani’s camp–as one of the finalists for the job.

And though the controversy had not gotten much airing in the press–perhaps in part because Ms. Raab is married to Michael Goodwin, executive editor of The Daily News , the Hunter senate members were eager to make some noise about their dissatisfaction. Once acting Hunter president Evangelos Gizis was done reviewing the university budget, he passed the microphone to senate chair Pamela Mills. Ms. Mills, a professor in the chemistry department, urged caution. “The administrative committee takes very seriously a resolution of no confidence in its board of trustees. There hasn’t been one for many years, and if it passes, it will garner some publicity,” she said gravely at the meeting, which The Observer attended. “We have to think about the consequences.”

As Ms. Mills explained by phone in an interview following the meeting, she couldn’t remember a time–at least in the last 10 years–when the senate had passed such a resolution. Nor could she remember, for that matter, the last time Hunter’s chancellor had been opposed by its board in the selection of a president. “The reason we wrote this resolution–and we consider it to be a rather extreme step–is because we considered the political pressures … extreme and public.” Later she added, “We’re now essentially a city government agency for former Giuliani appointees.”

The resolution, which was passed unanimously after a heated discussion over its contents, probably won’t change a thing. But it does get at the great deal of anger and resentment toward Mr. Giuliani and his loyalists, such as CUNY board of trustees chairman Herman Badillo, that is brewing among the college’s students, faculty and alumni. In their collective opinion, Mr. Giuliani has turned their beloved institution into a patronage pit that could scare off qualified academics from shaping the college’s future.

Of course, Mr. Giuliani’s camp isn’t about to cop to any such accusations. Even Mr. Badillo, who is singled out rather unflatteringly in the no-confidence resolution, brushed off the whole matter as if it were a pre-West Nile mosquito. “There are always some professors who disagree with me,” Mr. Badillo said. “They feel they should have the sole voice in deciding who the president is. The chancellor feels he should have the sole voice in deciding it. But the reality is the board of trustees decides.”

Then again, of CUNY’s 17 trustees, 10 are appointed by the Governor and five by the Mayor. Of the remaining two, the chair of the University Student Senate and the chair of the University Faculty Senate, only the student representative votes. Current trustees with close professional ties to the Mayor or the Governor include board chairman Herman Badillo, a special education advisor to Mr. Giuliani; Randy Mastro, a former deputy mayor to Mr. Giuliani; George Rios, the commissioner of the Department of Records and Information Services; Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a former executive assistant to Governor George Pataki and now a director of the Empire State Development Corporation; and Alfred Curtis, chief executive of the United Nations Development Corporation, a semi-public agency overseen by the Mayor.

Asked about the possibility of influence on the board, trustee John Morning, a graphic designer who was appointed by Governor Pataki (but who voted against Ms. Raab’s appointment), said: “I have been disturbed for some time now that certain trustees on this board are subject to pressure. But how could they not be? They are within the Mayor’s sphere of influence.”

Mr. Badillo disagreed with this interpretation. “I supported Jennifer Raab, and it has nothing to do with the Mayor or the Governor,” he said. “Both the Mayor and the Governor supported her, and I see nothing wrong with that. Hunter is a public institution that receives public funds, and the Mayor and the Governor have the right to make policy and make their changes known.”

But long-standing faculty members, such as Bernard Sohmer, the current University Faculty Senate chair, and his predecessor, Sandi Cooper, object to what they contend is political meddling in academic matters. “Some of the actions of the board of trustees have emanated from the Mayor’s office for some time,” Mr. Sohmer said. The most recent example of interference, they both said, was the failed push for former Deputy Mayor Ninfa Segarra to head La Guardia Community College. (Ms. Segarra is now vice president of inter-campus collaboration at CUNY.)

Certainly, Ms. Raab won’t be the only non-academic guiding a Manhattan-based institution of higher learning. This year saw retired Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey take over presidency of the New School in Greenwich Village. Like Ms. Raab, Mr. Kerrey’s background is in politics, not academia.

And though Ms. Cooper and Mr. Sohmer seem quite familiar with the political pressures that can be brought to bear on publicly funded universities, they said that even they were surprised by the amount of coercion that led to the appointment of Ms. Raab.

“That kind of manipulation is common,” Mr. Sohmer said. “But it’s cruder this time than I have ever been aware of.”

Ms. Cooper concurred. “I have been in CUNY since 1967,” she said. “I have been in the Faculty Senate since 1976, and I’ve seen occasional political meddling in the past, but nothing like this.”

For Ms. Raab, a lawyer and onetime issues director for Mr. Giuliani’s Mayoral campaign, the tempest that has resulted from her clinching the Hunter presidency has got to feel like déjà vu. Back in 1994, when Mr. Giuliani chose her to serve as chair of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the city’s preservation community was outraged because Ms. Raab had no experience in the field.

According to a number of CUNY faculty members and others involved in the search process, the interference from Mr. Giuliani’s camp started early on and grew heavier as the search progressed. Liam Flynn-Jambeck, the head of Hunter undergraduate student government, told The Observer that he was part of a 12-person search committee that included five trustees, Brooklyn College president Christoph Kimmich (all appointed by Mr. Badillo), students, faculty members and alumni. According to Mr. Flynn-Jambeck, last summer the committee reviewed the résumés of candidates selected by executive headhunter Korn/Ferry International. Ms. Raab was not on this list.

But according to a number of the members of the search committee, when they met on Sept. 7 to draft a list of 10 candidates who were to be given preliminary interviews, Ms. Raab’s résumé somehow appeared in the pool. The 10 finalists were chosen by secret ballot. “Everyone on the top 10 got at least six [votes],” Mr. Flynn-Jambeck said. “Three others got four, and Jennifer Raab got two.” When three candidates with four votes dropped out, the committee decided that Ms. Raab would be an alternate candidate should one of the 10 finalists drop out. According to Mr. Flynn-Jambeck, no one dropped out.

So Mr. Flynn-Jambeck and a number of other search-committee members said they were surprised when, in October, they received a series of schedules of possible meeting times with the candidates and Ms. Raab was included. Mr. Flynn-Jambeck said that when he asked CUNY’s dean for the executive office, Bob Ptachik, about it, he was told, “She’s going to be given an honorary interview. I can give you my word that no further action will be taken with her candidacy.” (Mr. Ptachik declined to comment for this article.)

Nevertheless, when it came time, on Nov. 21, to whittle the list down to the four candidates who would make an official visit to the Hunter campus, Ms. Raab’s name came up again. “Before we took the first vote, a professor asked Benno Schmidt, since he had been the president of [Yale], what his take was on things,” Mr. Flynn-Jambeck said. “He said he liked this candidate, that candidate and Jennifer Raab. He said: ‘She knows New York, and she could bring money to the school.'”

But Ms. Raab did not make the cut. Those who did: Ohio State’s Gregory H. Williams, the dean of law at Ohio State University, got 11 votes; Jo Ann Gora, provost of Old Dominion University, garnered 10; and John Stockwell, the chancellor of the University of South Carolina at Spartanburg, got eight. Ms. Raab received three votes. According to search-committee members, she needed at least six votes (from the 11 committee members who showed up) to get on the list.

At this point, Mr. Flynn-Jambeck said that Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Mastro started to

look annoyed. “Mastro gave a speech,” he said. “He told us that as a search committee, we were obligated to show the campus the most qualified candidates, and that it wouldn’t be right not to let the campus see her. He said we would really be doing a disservice to the college if we didn’t.”

According to search-committee members, another round of voting took place. But Ms. Raab did not fare any better. Then Mr. Schmidt gave a speech. “He said, ‘I think this committee’s being political. As the only person in this room beside Kimmich who has been at the head of a higher-education institution, I think my opinion should be listened to more,'” Mr. Flynn-Jembeck recounted. “‘I know who would be good, and I think [Ms. Raab] deserves a shot.'” Meanwhile, CUNY trustee and search-committee member Kenneth Cook and another search-committee member, who requested anonymity, told The Observer that Mr. Mastro went around the room whispering into the ears of various trustees who were present.

Search-committee members interviewed by the Observer estimated that the group voted as many as six times before Ms. Raab was selected as one of four finalists to come to the campus for interviews with Hunter constituencies in November.

Mr. Mastro declined to discuss the specifics of the search-committee meetings, but he said that “every one of the candidates we received on campus had to have a majority of the [search committee’s] votes.” Asked about the numerous votes that were taken before Ms. Raab became one of the four finalists, Mr. Mastro said: “I’ve now sat on numerous search committees. On every one of those committees, we’ve taken several votes. It’s nothing unusual.”

As has been reported in the press, Ms. Raab rated somewhat poorly with the aforementioned Hunter constituencies, which included the college’s vice presidents, deans, executive directors of financial aid, students, alumni and faculty. In a report to the presidential search committee, Hunter’s department chairs praised Ms. Raab as a “bright and energetic person, admired by her colleagues, public-spirited and hard-working.” But they were put off by her lack of academic credentials–she has a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, a master’s in public affairs from Princeton University and a law degree from Harvard, but no Ph.D.–and experience, her lack of “organizational and managerial experience in large and complex institutions,” and her lack of fund-raising experience.

“It’s fair to say she got the least support by far,” Mr. Flynn-Jambeck said. He added that the word “least” should be spelled with capital letters. As long as Ms. Raab had been a finalist, however, she could be appointed by the board of trustees, regardless of recommendations.

Indeed, Mr. Cook, who voted against Ms. Raab’s appointment, said that just a few days before the final Jan. 29 vote, he had counted “10 [trustees] voting with me, maybe 11.” But Mr. Cook figured that a lot of political arm-twisting went on in the days leading up to the vote. He said that he got as many as 35 calls from “the Mayor’s office, the Governor’s office and other trustees telling me who they were supporting, and I assume that’s who they wanted me to vote for.” Mr. Cook said he was annoyed by the calls because, he felt, “they were compromising my principles because everyone knew who I was in favor of.”

On the day of the vote, Jan. 29, City University Chancellor Matthew Goldstein–who was Mr. Giuliani’s choice to run CUNY after the Mayor virtually ran predecessor W. Ann Reynolds out of town–threw his support behind Ms. Gora (though he did not vote), asking the trustees to approve her.

But Mr. Badillo made the motion to appoint Ms. Raab, and the majority followed. Six of the 16 trustees opposed Ms. Raab’s selection. Surprisingly, Mr. Schmidt was among the dissenters. He even made a public statement of support for the Chancellor.

Mr. Schmidt’s apparent flip-flopping earned him the respect of some observers of the controversy. But others contend that Mr. Schmidt merely did the Mayor’s dirty work behind closed doors, then–once Ms. Raab’s appointment was a fait accompli –publicly denounced the situation so that he looked like a champ.

Asked to comment on this, Mr. Schmidt said, “I actually thought there were four or five possible candidates, but I did have a preference.” Mr. Schmidt said that he made up his mind only after he had seen and talked to all of the candidates.

Also siding with Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Schmidt were student representative D. Michael Anglin, Monsignor Michael Crimmins, Mr. Cook, Ron Marino and Mr. Morning. During the public session where the trustees’ vote was officially taken, Rev. Crimmins made a statement protesting “the outside political intimidation.”

Mr. Badillo denied that any intimidation took place. “I called [the trustees] to let them know I supported Jennifer Raab,” he said. “But the trustees are used to getting phone calls… It’s a normal thing in a public university.” The fact that the board was very divided, an unusual public sign of discord, was seen by him as a proof that the process had been democratic. “Crimmins voted against Jennifer Raab, he was not intimidated,” he said. “It was a divided board. If it had been unanimous, you could charge that. But look at that vote.” Going back on it later, he added, “In my career as chairman, I have been used to winning on one vote. Compared to that, this [the 10 to 6 decision] is a landslide.”

Of Ms. Raab’s appointment, Mr. Mastro said: “Many of the trustees had worked with her and knew of her abilities. [Her appointment] was out of no disrespect to the chancellor. We know her better than the chancellor would through the interviewing process.” He added: “Whenever one is on a search committee, one brings to that process their life experience, including the many people they’ve met.”

Hunter’s Senate felt otherwise, of course, and said so with its Valentine’s Day resolution of no-confidence in the board of trustees as a whole and in Chairman Badillo, specifically. The resolution also called for the enactment “of strict conflict of interest laws that would prohibit anyone whose employment or financial well-being is dependent on the good will and pleasure of the Mayor or the Governor from serving as a member of the board of trustees.”

About Ms. Raab, however, not a negative word was written.

“We’re separating the resolution from our work with [Jennifer Raab],” Ms. Mills said. “We don’t want to look like we’re taking an adversarial role.” The risk of drafting such a resolution, of course, is to antagonize a president who already comes appointed wholly without the community’s approval, and who is aware of it. Ms. Raab did not return calls seeking comment.

“I’m uncomfortable with putting things in there that diss her,” one Hunter professor told the assembled crowd in room 714W on Feb. 14. “I’m uncomfortable with saying she’s unqualified, even though she is.” Another professor added that to draw attention to Ms. Raab’s appointment and her lack of credentials would put the institution in jeopardy. “The New York Times…will repeat she’s not qualified,” she said. “Then the chancellor will never give her anything, and we’ll never get anything.”

And yet most professors, including Ms. Mills, contended that the political manipulations are even more apparent this time because of Ms. Raab’s background. “She doesn’t have articles, she doesn’t have a Ph.D.,” said a Hunter professor at the Senate meeting to a smattering of applause. “That’s when politics become a problem.” The fact that Ms. Raab does not have any kind of recognized scholarship is also bound to be a problem when the institution decides to tenure her, as it always does for its presidents. “One of the questions is, what department would she be in,” explained Ms. Mills. “She has no PhD.”

Of all the potential side-effects of the appointment, however, possibly the most harmful concerns future executive searches at CUNY. In a letter to Mr. Badillo that was obtained by The Observer, Mr. Sohmer wrote: “There are two more major searches open at CUNY. The selection of Jennifer Raab for Hunter portends that qualified candidates will not apply because they believe presidential appointments at CUNY are based on political and not academic qualifications.”

By all accounts, the only search currently active at CUNY is for a president at City College. (A search for a president of Queens College is also planned for the near future.) The City College search committee, headed by Mr. Mastro, still needs to find enough viable candidates for a campus visit. “Since my last report, two of the individuals the Search Committee wished to present to the City College community have indicated that they were unable to continue their candidacies,” wrote Mr. Mastro in a search update dated December 19, 2000. “Two others selected by the Committee remain interested.” Trustees guidelines call for three or four candidates to make campus visits; these were deferred until more candidates were found. According to close observers, the search is now at a standstill.

Asked about the status of the City College search, Mr. Mastro said: “We have an exceptional group of candidates that we have already interviewed and we are interviewing another set of candidates.”

Mr. Morning, who also sits on the City College search committee, was concerned about the impact of the Raab appointment. “It’s troubling to think that professionals in the field of education will not take our searches seriously,” he said, “because despite their qualifications, they know the rug can be pulled out from under their feet at the 11th hour in favor of someone without required qualifications.” Other Hunter community members were skeptical as well. “If I were interested in the presidency and watched the fiasco at Hunter,” Mr. Sohmer said, “I would back off. It sort of poisoned the well.”