From the outside, Hunter College looks more like a Manhattan office tower than a university. But step inside and it is instantly recognizable as a college campus, just vertical, crammed with students rushing to their next class or grabbing coffee with their classmates.
This is one of the crown jewels of the City University of New York. “A total crossroads of New York,” says its new, interim president, Ann Kirschner.
Kirschner, 71, a digital entrepreneur who served as the first Dean of CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College, stepped in this fall after the resignation of Hunter’s longtime president, Jennifer J. Raab. Kirschner will serve until a permanent president is selected.
Kirschner spoke to Straus News in her college office on Lexington Avenue and 68th street. Here is part one of the conversation:
What does it mean to be interim president? What’s the mission?
Well, the mission is at its most passive is to keep everything running and making sure that we don’t miss a beat. I’m not much of a status quo sort of person. So for me, it’s really what are the key challenges facing Hunter College? What can I and should I address now? And what do I need to tee up for the permanent president? This nameless, faceless person I consider one of my core constituents. What should I be doing for you, next president?
So what are those key challenges?
At the Hunter College level, we have the largest entering class we’ve ever had. So we’re serving a total of about 24,000 students. How do you align your instructional capacity or facilities, your staffing, in line with that? Recognizing that times are different. It’s not only the success of the faculty in the classroom that is going to determine whether a student is successful. But all those surround services of advising and counseling and career focus, and all of that, that really makes a successful college experience. So in some areas we are very well aligned. We welcomed more new faculty to Hunter College this year than ever before. But in other areas I think we have an opportunity to up our game a little bit, to use technology to help us scale and help us improve our services.
When it comes to facilities, we have some facilities that are glittering and beautiful, and others that could use a bit of polishing up. That’s a euphemism for the ceiling is falling down. And we want to address all of that. There are some colleges in the United States that are building climbing walls and swimming pools and employing landscape architects.
We’re trying to get the elevators and the escalators to be operational all the time.
What’s driving the record enrollment?
This is a great place to go to college. Location, location, location. More than any of the other CUNY campuses, we pull from all around the city. Students love being at 68th and Park, 68th and Lexington. We have legendary faculty and CUNY continues to be the biggest bargain in town. And these days, when the public has a lot of legitimate questions about the cost of higher education, the value of higher education, to know that most of our students graduate debt free is just a huge boon.
So I think that a combination of academic excellence and affordability and access. This is a place where you’re going to feel comfortable wherever you’re from. However you dress. Whatever you look like. Whatever language you speak. The fact that this is so, part and parcel of New York I think is so powerful.
You mentioned tech, I would think that that would be a real sweet spot for you.
Yes, it is a sweet spot for me. And how do I say this diplomatically? There’s a tremendous amount that we can do to use tech to serve students and to serve them efficiently and with great quality. So increasing things like our online presence will become extremely important. One area that I’m particularly excited about is, I think in years to come, we will find great ways to use AI for administrative efficiencies. I was a Princeton trustee during the years that I was also running Macaulay and I would sit there sometimes with a headache absorbing the difference between what a great private institution provides in the way of resources and then what our public institutions try to do. At a private university you might have 200, or maybe 300, students to an advisor. At a place like CUNY, it’s going to be well over 1000.
Think about that. And then think about whether in the future we will be able to use systems to answer simple questions, and leave the more complicated questions to the advisors. So it’s not necessarily pawning the students off to robots. It’s having artificial intelligence help the experts help the students. So I think there’s going to be enormous opportunities there. Enormous dangers, of course, as well. Risks.
The pandemic was kind of a right hook to higher education, where students discovered that they could actually learn online. And what did that mean for the cost of expensive colleges? And now you have AI, sort of a left hook. What does it mean to be able to use a conversation with ChatGPT or something like that, to answer questions? I think we’re in the first inning of how all of this sorts out. But it’s going to be an important part of the equation going forward.
I hear you saying that Hunter actually has a specific future in this world, this firmament changes?
No, I don’t think it’s specific. I think it’s generically true of higher education. It’s just that as you said, it’s my sweet spot. It’s the world I come out of. The other part of the world I come out of is the media world. How do we communicate what we do? We’ve been talking a lot around here about video literacy, and the use of video to communicate the mission of Hunter. I met with a couple of faculty members yesterday. I just wanted to grab my phone and start creating short videos for them because they were so passionate about their subject. And what they were saying would be of such great interest to students. So how do you communicate that? You send them an email? Do you send them a text? No, we live in the Instagram, Tick Tock, InstaReals world. YouTube video. And I think we have to learn how to communicate even as academics in those channels.
Do you think most college presidents or most academics even understand what you just said?
No. And the question is, is that a feature or a bug? And I don’t know. I am an interim president, which means I am pre fired. I can’t help but bring my own experiences to the table. And I want to believe that that’s part of the reason that I am here. To a certain extent, I think I can stir the pot around some of these issues. And some of them will outlast me as permanent, important features of Hunter College and others like my blue sneakers may leave with me.