Criticism and controversy around Jennifer Raab’s presidency at Hunter College spilled beyond the campus this summer, with media coverage in The New York Times and the Chronicle of Higher Education. The attention was sparked by the acrimonious departure of two more high-ranking Hunter officials.
Raab’s 12 years at the helm of Hunter College has been marked by frequent turnover in the top ranks of her administration. There have been six official or temporary deans of the School of Arts and Sciences and five more at the School of Social Work, while the fund-raising office has seen 11 shifts of leadership.
Campus criticism of what the Chronicle described as Raab’s “polarizing” role flared up again in response to a resignation letter that circulated widely on campus at the end of last semester. Maria Doelger Anderson, an assistant dean in the School of Arts and Sciences, lamented that “the path that the leadership of the college has chosen to pursue – one that favors select individuals over the goals of the institution and metes out punishment and retribution instead of welcoming an open and honest exchange of ideas – has transformed Hunter into an institution with which I am no longer proud to be associated.” President Raab, she wrote, was so intolerant of dissent that she had created an atmosphere of “fear and mistrust.”
On July 2, Erec Koch, the dean of Arts and Sciences, announced his departure. Hunter’s top lawyer and its chief operating officer have also recently resigned.
“Those issues really have to do with this kind of assumption and behavior that you can lead on the basis of fear, intimidation and humiliation, on the basis of threat [and] withdrawal of resources, particularly [with] those who have something at stake like department chairs,” Mike Fabricant, professor of social work at Hunter and former executive officer of CUNY’s doctoral program in social welfare, told the Times.
The Times noted that, according to PSC President Barbara Bowen, the number of complaints to the union about the repressive work environment at Hunter “far exceeded” the number from other CUNY campuses. The PSC and its Hunter chapter have raised the issue with President Raab and the chancellor’s office, Bowen told Clarion, and have stressed that the interests of the college require a change.
Joan Tronto, former chair of the Hunter Senate and now a professor at the University of Minnesota, told the Times that most academics view disagreement as normal, and that “after an argument’s over, you can still work with the people. But Jennifer Raab, after someone has disagreed with her, can never work with that person again.”
The current chair of the Hunter Senate, Christa Davis Acampora, took a more mixed view. Criticisms of Raab are widespread on campus, Acampora acknowledged: “I don’t dismiss them or take those concerns lightly,” she told the Chronicle. “But is Hunter a better place than it was 12 years ago? Absolutely. We used to have to bring our toilet paper with us. It was that bad.” Raab’s supporters point particularly to her fundraising prowess, which recently netted a $25 million gift, the largest in the college’s history.
“Raab is not without talent,” Fabricant, who is also treasurer of the PSC, told the Chronicle. “That’s not really the point. When you’re churning your administrators in this way, you’re incinerating continuity and opportunity.”
After interviewing more than 30 current and former Hunter employees, the Times noted that “it can often seem that her critics and her supporters are speaking about different presidents entirely.” But those who had been at odds with Raab repeatedly spoke of being “punished for views that were not identical to hers,” the Times reported.
Raab has adamantly defended her record. In a July letter to the Chronicle, she noted that the college has raised more than $200 million during her tenure and seen the construction of new facilities, such as the Silberman School of Social Work building in East Harlem and a new home for Hunter’s MFA program in art in Tribeca. The Chronicle published 10 other letters that came to Raab’s defense.
‘Climate of Fear’
Interim Chancellor Bill Kelly praised Raab’s “sterling performance” to the Times. “Hunter is doing extremely well,” Kelly said.
This is not the first time that concerns about the atmosphere at Hunter have gotten a public airing. In 2005, the report of a College Senate committee on academic freedom expressed concern about “perceptions of a climate of fear” on campus interfering with free expression – particularly in relation to disagreements over college policy.
The PSC’s Academic Freedom Committee conducted a survey of Hunter faculty and staff at Hunter in 2006, using a survey instrument developed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Fifty-eight percent of respondents said that Raab did not respect the decisions of faculty committees on educational matters, and a plurality of 46% to 34% said she did not respect faculty recommendations on promotion and tenure.