Q&A with Provost Joy Connolly

The GC’s new Provost and Senior Vice President on her goals for the institution; the main challenges, opportunities, and imperatives; and her hidden “science fiction fan-girl” side.

GC: What drew you to the GC?

Connolly: It’s a bit of a cliché for an incoming provost to point to the stellar faculty and student body, but in this case the sentiment applies a thousandfold! The chance to work with such an outstanding group of people in the country’s largest urban public university was the main draw.
I’m a passionate admirer of public education, I’ve been in love with New York ever since the day I moved here 12 years ago, and I love a good challenge; so the draw was strong and the decision was easy.

As you step into the Provost role, what are your goals for the first year and beyond?

Since I wrote my dissertation in the mid-1990s, I’ve been attracted to the work of figures like Cicero, Augustine, the Italian humanist Coluccio Salutati, and Adam Smith — all of whom viewed intense intellectual activity as a way to engage and intervene in the world and to see things afresh.
I see many faculty and students at the GC in these terms, deeply invested in the life of the city and the world beyond. I will ask faculty and students if they are making the mark they want to make, reaching the audiences they seek, and what partnerships and collaborations will help them do their best possible work.

Struck as I am by the sheer size and diversity of CUNY, I’m eager to press on with initiatives like the new Mellon grant that supports our graduate students teaching in CUNY community colleges. I don’t want to minimize the challenges here, but CUNY seems well placed to lead the nation in much-needed efforts to diversify the professoriate by opening up entry points in high school and college, broadening the pipeline to the Ph.D. 
I will also be tackling issues created by the tough job market for Ph.D.'s. Are we doing everything we can to prepare students for the conventional academic market?  A broader and much more difficult question: how do we incorporate preparation for jobs outside academia into the doctoral experience? 

Of course, seeking sources of revenue is part of any good provost’s portfolio. This city is filled with successful people seeking new fields of knowledge, creative inspiration, and mentorship. I look forward to thinking about and also beyond traditional master’s programs, inventing new approaches to seminars and programs of study.

With all these issues, my aim will be to frame responses that emerge organically from the specific distinctive strengths of the Graduate Center.  This means that to begin with, I want to get to know the place as thoroughly as I can. I’ll spend much of my first year talking with and listening to GC faculty, staff, and students, as well as faculty and administrators throughout CUNY.

Could you talk about your work prior to the GC and how it relates to your new role?

I spent four rewarding years as Dean for the Humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Science at NYU, and before that, three years as Director of NYU’s College Core Curriculum. In that earlier role, I put in place a post-doctoral program that allowed recent Ph.D.'s to teach and to run workshops for graduate students on pedagogy and the job market. The post required a good deal of diplomacy and curiosity about many fields of study.
It turned out to be perfect preparation for the deanship, where I spent most of my time recruiting new faculty, evaluating departments and research initiatives, and helping faculty develop scholarly relationships. I learned useful lessons about the space between planning and action, the importance of listening, the importance of explaining reasons for decisions (especially unpopular ones), and the need to keep strong academic values at the center of administrative decision-making.

These days any effort to justify assertive hiring in the humanities involves confronting the decline in numbers of undergraduates studying those fields. As dean, I began to think hard about how we present our disciplines to our undergraduates, their parents, and the larger public; and, more deeply than I ever had, I started examining the forces that drive our research agendas and how we train graduate students. Do we think self-critically and ambitiously about the shape and purpose of our scholarship? Are we preparing them to reach out to tomorrow’s undergraduates and to the broader world? What room are we making for innovation and experiment?

There’s been a lot of discussion about the problems facing public higher education. Could you discuss the challenges and/or opportunities that you see from your position?

Diverse, ambitious, and with a great history, CUNY embodies the best of public education; it also faces some of the biggest challenges. Tackling funding constraints will be a major piece of the puzzle. Gaining a new contract is good news, but the next negotiation is around the corner. Fields that aren’t well understood by the taxpayers, from theoretical sciences to literary theory, need especially strong advocacy at a time when the costs of education are going up and citizens want accountability.

The changing Ph.D. job market, as I said earlier, is another important issue. In my view, it doesn’t serve students well to envision all aspects of doctoral education as focused exclusively on training the next generation of research scholars. How to balance offering students experiences outside the box of conventional scholarly pursuits with training them in the skills and methods standard in each field is a question we all need to pitch in to answering.

I’ve already mentioned diversity as a major item on the agenda, and in that context I had race, ethnicity, and gender in mind. Intellectual diversity in the form of transdisciplinary work, particularly in partnerships among humanists, scientists, and social scientists, is a central interest of mine — especially the translation of plans for, say, medical humanities or ethics and public policy into workable programs of study.

What led you to launch Going on the Market, your resource for graduates and students who are trying to secure fellowships and navigate the job market?

That little book is my most frequently read publication! Over the years I’ve received countless expressions of thanks from students all over the world. It makes me enormously happy to be of help to them. As a graduate student, even coming from a privileged educational background, I tangled with the social and professional codes that academics must learn in order to succeed.
Faculty can sometimes let basic information about dealing with exams, publishing articles, and going on the job market fall through the cracks. My aim was to help students of all backgrounds decode the system, by giving them practical tools for negotiating academia.

When you’re not studying Greek and Roman thought, how do you like to spend your time?

My ideal day off, even within the bounds of New York, would require a matter transporter — and now I’ve already revealed my science fiction fan-girl side. I’d love to move instantly from wandering in the Bronx Botanical Garden to listening to Steve Reich at Poisson Rouge, followed by cocktails somewhere outdoors; or spend a few hours at the Whitney or the Rubin with a stop to buy vittles at the Union Square Greenmarket, ending up with making curry at home. I'm a reader of novels, a skier and avid traveler, a lover of modern and contemporary classical music and opera, and an enthusiastic novice violinist — heavy emphasis on the novice.

Submitted on: SEP 8, 2016

Category: General GC News