Time to Transform: President Robin L. Garrell and Professors Cathy Davidson, Ann Kirschner, and Van C. Tran Share Their Perspectives on the Graduate Center’s Future and its Role in NYC

Clockwise from upper left: President Robin L. Garrell, Professors Cathy Davidson, Van Tran and Ann Kirschner

Graduate Center President Robin L. Garrell, in her words, is part of a crazy club. She is one of a handful of college and university presidents who started their roles in 2020 when many campuses were shut down due to the pandemic. “The ordinary rhythm of meeting, greeting, and eating were non-existent,” she told a group of alumni who gathered in late May 2021, remotely via Zoom, for “The University in the City,” a panel discussion with three Graduate Center faculty members that Garrell hosted. 

At the event, Garrell and the three faculty members — Distinguished Professor of English and Founding Director of the Futures Initiative Cathy Davidson; University Professor Ann Kirschner, and Associate Professor of Sociology and Deputy Director of the Center for Urban Research Van C. Tran — shared their visions for ways that the Graduate Center can transform and can contribute to the future of New York City, especially in the wake of the pandemic. 

“My goal is to position the Graduate Center as a national leader in graduate education for the public good, attracting diverse students and faculty who are or who will become extraordinary humanistic leaders who are committed to addressing the challenges our society faces today, racism, socioeconomic inequality, injustice, climate change, and so much more,” Garrell said. 

In the discussion that followed, Garrell invited Davidson, Kirschner, and Tran to share their perspectives on the Graduate Center’s future. Edited excerpts of their discussion are captured here, and a video of the event is available on YouTube

Robin Garrell: I'm going to start off with a question for each of our panelists and starting with you, Cathy, how would you describe Graduate Center students today? Who are they? How are they different from students that go other places and how is their experience at the Graduate Center distinctive? And how does it prepare them for what's next?

Cathy Davidson: I've taught at community colleges, a huge state university, an Ivy League school, and then I was at Duke for 25 years before I came here. And what I've seen here is a passion for research that matters and research that will somehow have an impact on society, that will have an impact on how we think, how we know, how we feel, how we understand the world. And I'm convinced that's because the intimate relationship our graduate students have with the students they teach. This isn't typical. Many elite universities won't allow graduate students to teach to their undergraduates because undergraduates are going to be the donors, future donors, so you want them to have very famous professors teaching them. 

Garrell: Van, you've been engaged with CUNY through much of your student and faculty life. How would you describe the Graduate Center's place in this city? How is it distinctive and impactful and, well, necessary?

Van C. Tran: I have had the privilege of affiliating with CUNY for over 20 years since my undergraduate days. And as I listened to Cathy, I remembered myself during those undergrad years when I was working in a hardware store on Upper East Side of New York, 45 hours a week, while trying to get my education and to college. That's the type of students that we have. But to come back to the broader theme for the panel, I'd like to speak about two related topics. One is the place of the GC within the CUNY system and the place of the GC within New York City. The GC is a very, very special place. 

We were established to be the hub for the entire CUNY system. We are fortunate we located right here in midtown Manhattan, central to the city, and we have been and I think we'll continue to serve as that hub for faculty from across the CUNY system, for undergraduates and doctoral students from across the CUNY system.

Cathy spoke about how our students taught everywhere across the city. That is the case. And in that teaching our doctoral students are connected deeply to many, many communities across the city. And that brings me to the second point, which is the centrality of the GC within New York City. It is remarkable that the New York City area has an institution like the GC. 

A bit of history. When I think about CUNY and GC and New York City, the 1970s was the decade when CUNY grew significantly, with the establishment of community colleges and four-year colleges, from Hostos to Baruch to York to CSI; 1970 was also a moment when New York was in a traumatic state of decline and urban decay and yet we grew and met the needs of educating the immigrants and their children who came from all over the world.

In a nutshell, immigration saved New York City half a century ago. Today, we're at the exact same moment. People have been declaring that New York City is dying, the doom and gloom are back, but of course as New Yorkers we're committed and we believe that the city will come back. But once again, in this moment of coming back, we have a great role to play in this process. 

Garrell: Ann, what do you see as the role of the Graduate Center and the economic recovery of the city and the region? And do research and other kinds of partnerships factor into that?

Ann Kirschner: As we think about this reset, it's a moment to do what we do so well, only maybe do it in different ways. What are the new credentials that students are going to need? What are the new forms of credentials that might be possible? We know how to teach virtually now, where is that technology going to take us both as researchers, but also as teachers? What does this pedagogy mean for the need for the future?

The area that I have the most experience in which is public-private partnerships, how do we think about the industry of New York and making sure that industry understands that the greatest source of talent they could ever have is right under their nose here at CUNY and at the Graduate Center.

Garrell: How do you see our public-facing research portfolio evolving? What is the Graduate Center in a position to do that would be highly impactful for the city, the region, and the nation?

Kirschner: I could take one stab at it based on the work that I've been doing with our fabulous department of Computer Science and that is in the area of data science. The key to great research in data science is huge datasets, and who's got the biggest datasets of all? Well, they're in government and they're in the private sector. So, there's a wonderful opportunity here for the computer scientists and the data scientists to partner with the city to do research on epidemiology and on how we're going to recover through vaccinating the whole city. Whether it's around health care or transportation, there are just enormous things that we can offer to the city and to the private sector.

And one of the areas where the Graduate Center is really pioneering is in saying, “Okay, well, again, we understand master's and Ph.D. programs, but those require a commitment of time and resources that not everybody has.” So, what new credentials might we create that could enable us to partner with employers of some of the leading companies around the city? And tap that diverse pool of talent that we have at CUNY, knowing that they juggle work, they juggle families, and they juggle their education. 

Tran: I think that the social sciences [are in a] profound place to contribute. At the core of what we do at the GC is knowledge creation and research. And we have such deep expertise on some of the most vexing social problems, from immigration, intergroup relations, racial justice, and rising income and socioeconomic inequality, and the possibility of creating more social mobility for those who are from more modest backgrounds. 

I think that really is our place, which is to be sure that the truth is being told and told in the more nuanced and complex way that it deserves to be told. 

That brings me to my final point, which is policy impact. Informed policy that is based on actual research, from housing affordability to homelessness to what we call the innovation complex or the tech economy or the knowledge economy: how such ecosystems work and how can we promote and cultivate innovation, which I think is at the core of a great university but also at the very core of a great city.

Davidson: I would only just add to that, that one of the upsides, if we can say that, of the pandemic has been to see how much people are paying attention. We might not be as recognized as we should be, but, for example, I went to a program on race and racism by scholars from the Graduate Center and other scholars as well. There were over 900 people who attended that online. So, I think there really is a sense that not only are we in a very special place at a moment of crisis, which is also a moment of opportunity, but people are listening and we can grab that attention. And so, it feels to me, we're in a liminal space that's not just triage, transition, but we really are on the verge of transformation. 

Garrell: Many people view graduate education, I'm speaking out the public at large, particularly, doctoral education as something that benefits individuals but not the public. Why should taxpayers invest in doctoral education and how can our alumni like the folks listening in here and our friends help communicate the importance of what we do?

Kirschner: I think it's pretty clear in the sciences and in technology that American competitiveness depends at least, in part, on the creation of new knowledge and new knowledge happens in graduate schools. 

The Graduate Center has been a leader in rethinking what the role of the humanities Ph.D. is going to be outside of traditional academic appointments through a Mellon grant which has done fascinating, fabulous work in preparing graduate students to think about careers outside of the traditional academic appointments. So, I think we're on the right track, which is don't stop preparing graduate students for doctorates in the humanities, but think with new eyes, think with new creativity about what the social benefit of that might be.

Tran: [The GC] opens doors to those who otherwise would not have had a chance to get a doctoral education. And it opens our academy to more diverse voices and perspectives that are traditionally excluded and marginalized. And that is a public good that either should be funded by the city and the state and/or it is a public good that any private citizen should feel committed enough to foster and cultivate. And, finally, when we look at our alumni across the country, they pursue a range of very interesting career paths. So, there's no one path of your life after your Ph.D. And that diversity is something that we want to celebrate and hopefully help our students find their own voice and their own passion and their own path.

Submitted on: JUL 1, 2021

Category: Alumni News | English | Faculty Activities | GCstories | General GC News | Sociology | The CUNY Futures Initiative | Voices of the GC