Amid Exits, President of Hunter College Is Assailed for Her Management Style

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Jennifer J. Raab, the fast-moving, fast-talking president of Hunter College, recently landed a $25 million donation, the largest in the college's history. A science and health building that Hunter is constructing with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center won approval last month from the Department of City Planning. And on Tuesday, Ms. Raab will cut the ribbon on Phase 1 of a $45 million redesign of the college's library -- a bright, inviting, communal space that could transform the compact vertical campus.

This was supposed to be a moment of unqualified victory for Ms. Raab, who has led the college for 12 years. But the summer began on a different note, after a departing assistant dean wrote and distributed a letter denouncing "personal attacks and a culture of fear and mistrust."

"I have watched her publicly shame and humiliate people to serve her own purpose," the assistant dean, Maria Doelger Anderson, said of Ms. Raab in the letter.

Ms. Anderson's departure came amid those of three senior administrators: Hunter's legal counsel, its chief operating officer and its dean of arts and sciences.

Ms. Raab's tenure has seen many such changes. The school of arts and sciences, which accounts for 17,000 of the college's 23,000 students, has had six official or temporary deans during that period. The school of social work has had five. The fund-raising office has gone through 11 shifts of leadership. And at Hunter's prestigious high school, three principals left within five years.

Some of these administrators left on good terms. Other offices have been more stable. But critics of Ms. Raab, like Michael Fabricant, a professor at the school of social work and a member of the union representing the City University of New York's faculty and staff, attribute the many departures to what they describe as a highly temperamental style of management.

"Those issues really have to do with the kind of assumption and behavior that you can lead on the basis of fear, intimidation and humiliation," he said, and "on the basis of threat, withdrawal of resources, particularly those who have something at stake like department chairs."

Barbara Bowen, head of the union, said the number of complaints about the atmosphere at Hunter far exceeded the number from any of the 17 other colleges in CUNY.

The unrest at Hunter, one of CUNY's top colleges, comes at a critical time, with the system seeking a new chancellor and the mayor's office, which chooses 5 of the 17 board members, about to change hands. (The governor chooses a majority of the board.)

Under Ms. Raab's tenure, Hunter's fortunes have risen considerably. Its admissions are more competitive and its faculty is more prominent. And a series of shrewd real estate maneuvers -- among them finding a shiny TriBeCa home for the master of fine arts program, moving the school of social work from the Upper East Side to the more relevant neighborhood of East Harlem, and turning a crumbling double town house built for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt into a public policy institute and stunning showpiece -- have reinvented Hunter's physical presence.

CUNY's interim chancellor, William P. Kelly, praised Ms. Raab's "sterling performance."

"Hunter," Chancellor Kelly said in an interview, "is doing extremely well."

Ms. Raab is especially proud of her record in fund-raising. Building on the connections she made in her previous job as head of the city's landmarks commission, she has won significant donations from families with names like Lauder, Silverstein, Spitzer and Tisch. The record gift came from Leon Cooperman, the chairman of a hedge fund, and his wife, Toby, a couple who met while they were students at Hunter in the 1960s.

Brash and outspoken, with the clatter of bracelets accenting her impassioned gesticulations, Ms. Raab, 57, has the kind of forceful presence that New Yorkers intuitively understand and that much of the rest of the country might find terrifying.

"I have a vision and I have always been very, very determined," she rasped. "I'm very tenacious."

With her lacquered nails and fancy accessories, and with her unguarded style of communication ("I mean, how amazing is that!" she is apt to exclaim), she is as far as can be from the stereotype of a bland academic administrator.

Asked about the complaints, Ms. Raab -- her manner veering suddenly from affable to incredulous -- made no effort to hide her irritation. She dismissed the criticism as the carping of a few outliers. To prove it, she pointed to a productive relationship with the Hunter College Senate, which its chairwoman, Christa Davis Acampora, confirmed. (Only five years ago, however, a Senate committee issued a stinging report on academic freedom, condemning a course the president's office had initiated. Built around the theme of how counterfeit merchandise hurts society, the course had been developed and sponsored not by professors but by an anticounterfeiting trade group with close ties to one of Hunter's major donors.)

Ms. Raab said, as did many of her champions, that those who criticized her were just uncomfortable with strong female leaders. "Where are the stories about men and their leadership style?" she asked. "It is always the same story. Where's the impact and what's the importance, at the end of the day, of this conversation?"

Asked to name a legitimate criticism of how she leads, she drew a blank.

When Ms. Raab sought the presidency of Hunter, she had never worked in higher education. A corporate litigator who held positions in the administrations of Mayors Edward I. Koch and Rudolph W. Giuliani, she had degrees from Cornell, Harvard and Princeton, but no Ph.D. She did, however, have a powerful emotional connection to Hunter College High School, to which she commuted from Washington Heights as a teenager, and she had a powerful vision for Hunter's future. Most important, she had the support of Mr. Giuliani, who was mayor at the time. Over the objections of many at CUNY (someone called in a bomb scare during her campus interview), and even over the objection of the chancellor, she got the job.

To people used to the collegiality of academia, her methods could be jarring.

In interviews and e-mails with more than 30 current or former Hunter employees, the same few complaints arose repeatedly. Several people described being shunned by Ms. Raab without explanation.

"When I finally knew something was really wrong I was in the elevator with the president and I said hello and she just ignored me," said a former staff member who declined, as some others did, to be identified for fear of professional repercussions. "I offered to help her carry something, and she just completely ignored me."

Others said they were punished for expressing views not identical to hers.

"Academics like to fight and argue," said Joan C. Tronto, a former chairwoman of the Hunter Senate, who now teaches at the University of Minnesota. "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."

After making a minor accommodation for students protesting one of Ms. Raab's initiatives, one faculty member said, her dean called her in for a formal reprimand on what she was told were the president's orders. "Later that year I applied for funding for conference travel and research, and I was told by someone in the provost's office that the president had personally crossed my name off the list and that I shouldn't bother applying," she said.

Ms. Anderson, who wrote the letter criticizing Ms. Raab, said she was trying to buy some time for her boss, the dean of arts and sciences, who she felt was being persecuted and who has since left.

People who work well with Ms. Raab describe her as someone who, in addition to working tirelessly on Hunter's behalf, remembers birthdays, asks about family, creates honors for underappreciated staff members and then invites their children in to see their parents celebrated.

"She's all about lifting people up and recognizing their service and celebrating their service," said John Rose, the dean of diversity at Hunter.

It can often seem that her critics and her supporters are speaking about different presidents entirely. Andrew J. Polsky, a scholar of presidencies in wartime, is one of the few willing to bridge the gap.

"She has been able to accomplish some extraordinary things at Hunter College and elsewhere," Professor Polsky said, adding that "the overwhelming majority" of the faculty approved of her leadership. "Are there parts of this that rub people the wrong way? Yes, but I don't think these are things that are inherently right or wrong. They go with the person."

Then invoking the punch line from "Annie Hall," about the man whose brother thinks he is a chicken, he added, "We need the eggs."

Ms. Raab's bosses do, too.

When Ms. Anderson's letter was released, Stuart B. Ewen, a professor who is an outspoken critic of Ms. Raab, tried to press the case against her with Matthew Goldstein, who was then CUNY's chancellor. Dr. Goldstein said he was aware of the problem, "but her metrics are very good."

The search for CUNY's next chancellor is now under way. According to someone with direct knowledge of the process, admirers of Ms. Raab have begun putting her name forward.

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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