Winter 2001

Sohmer, Faculty Senate Chair, Ponders CUNY Then and Now


It is safe to say few at CUNY can hike farther down Institutional Memory Lane than Bernard Sohmer. He first walked into a City College classroom (the subject was analytic geometry) in 1952. In on the founding of his campus's Faculty Senate in 1968 and a member of the University's Faculty Senate since 1979, Sohmer is now in a second two-year term as the tenth Chair of the Faculty Senate and ex officio member of the Board of Trustees. I met with Sohmer in November to discuss CUNY from his long perspective, and, for a subsequent conversation, we were joined by his Executive Committee colleague-and former Senate chair-Sandi Cooper (College of Staten Island, History), and later by Vice Chair Cecelia McCall (Baruch College, English) to discuss current Faculty senate concerns. -Gary Schmidgall

s has been known to happen at the University, Bernard Sohmer's career as a City College teacher of mathematics commenced on a note of hair-raising alacrity nearly a half-century ago. "I began teaching the day after I got a call from City College that there was an opening for me," he recalls.

The memory also causes Dr. Sohmer, now the Chair of the University Faculty Senate and non-voting ex officio member of the Board of Trustees, to recall wryly the historic venue of his first classes, long-gone Army Hall. "It had been a hospital during the Civil War, then a Hebrew orphan asylum, and a dormitory during World War II. It had a clothing store, a barbershop, and many, many cats, befriended and fed by the students. The aroma was quite. . .pungent."

Bernard Sohmer
Faculty Senate Chair Bernard Sohmer now andd in 1954, at a City College faculty meeting.
Sohmer recalls more pleasurably the sense of "commonality" in the faculty in his early days, which is why, after teaching at NYU for a year in 1957-58, he says he was "happy to take a demotion in rank to come back to City College." Asked why, he candidly replies, "the faculty at City was so lovable and the one at NYU wasn't!"

Raising an issue of much concern at CUNY now (and a particular focus of the Master Plan), Sohmer also recalls the old days "when there were very few part-time teachers in the department. The main advantage of a higher ratio of full- to part-timers is a greater commitment to the process of pedagogy, the refinement of the curriculum, which is and should be a continuous process. Part-timers have no obligation to do this and, in general, they don't."

Scarcely a joking matter were the volatile years of what Sohmer calls "the troubles." These were student protests in the late '60s and early '70s at City College, when Sohmer found himself in the thick of battle as Dean of Students and Vice Provost for Student Affairs. He remembers, amid threats of real violence and the resignation of the College's president and dean of students, being given the simple charge to "take care of things" on a campus he says was "occupied." "All bomb threats came to my office."

Still, there were rays of humor for Sohmer, who laughs easily, in what he says was his "fierce but not unfriendly" relationships with his student radical adversaries, adding that "in fact we were in agreement on our views, though not about means of effecting them."

He recalls being called from a dinner with Mayor John Lindsay ("this was before cell phones") to deal with an incursion of Columbia war protestors. Arriving too late, he was denied entrance to his own campus. A history professor at Sohmer's side, Bernard Bellush, now retired, went ballistic. "I have never ever heard someone chewed out so thoroughly! The radicals just shriveled and let us walk in!" More seriously, Sohmer reflects on the irony of "the troubles" beginning after many minority students had been admitted. And he admits, too, that there was "a kind of an arrogance on the part of some administrators that said, in effect, 'We know better, so we don't have to hear what you're saying'-a kind of deafness and no listening." One healthy outcome of "the troubles" was the breaking down of this communications impasse, Sohmer believes.
Senate Meeting
Egon Brenner, Dean of Engineering, later became a CUNY Deputy Chancellor. At center, throwup his hands at the lack of a name card, is professor of philosophy Yervin Krikorian.

It is not entirely coincidental that the University Faculty Senate was born at the same time as "the troubles," in 1968. "Nationally, there was a movement toward more collegial relations among faculty and administrators and toward self-governing bodies," says Sohmer, who was involved in creating his campus's Faculty Senate. The Senate officially consists of one senator for every 60 full-time faculty members at each of the University's colleges. Given the present 5,000 such faculty now, there are approximately 80 members of the Senate. (When the number of full-timers was at its peak of 11,000 to 12,000, around 1975, there were correspondingly more senators.) Their term is three years. According to Senate bylaws, its Executive Committee consists of four officers (Chair, Vice Chair, Secretary, and Treasurer), five members, with the preceding Chair an ex officio member. The Chair of the Senate can serve a maximum of two two-year terms and is an ex officio but non-voting member of the Board of Trustees.

From the perspective of nearly 20 years on the Executive Committee, Sohmer feels that, early on, "the Trustees and the Senate were reasonably consonant in their views. In recent years there has been, shall we say, some lapse into dissonance." This, he attributes in large part to diminished budgetary support for the University during both Democratic and Republican administrations and at both the gubernatorial and mayoral levels.

The current professorial salary scale-and the scale for presidents and top executives-is of particular concern to Sohmer. "For hires of top-rank scholars," he ventures, "CUNY is able to offer about 50% of what the market is. . .say $80,000 instead of more than $150,000. And there are some fields that are sexy enough that you need to bid: you put an ad out and get no responses." "Add to that the fact that we are in New York City, where the cost of living is high and quickly getting higher," Sohmer points out. "More flexibility in the deployment of salary enhancements would improve CUNY's ability to attract outstanding faculty. Add-ons already exist, but they could be usefully expanded in meritorious cases."

At our round-table, Sandi Cooper immediately emphasized, "What troubles me most profoundly is the drift away from support and commitment to higher education among the political leadership. There is a real cognitive dissonance between their claims of support for public education and their willingness, as they say on the streets of the Bronx, to put their money where their mouth is." Rephrasing the point more ironically, Sohmer adds, "The history of non-support, which goes all the way back to Rockefeller, has never been coupled with statements of non-support!"

And Cooper bridles at students' now "having to leave campus with huge mortgages on their back" in the form of student loans. "I'm a graduate of City College when it was free, and I remember not having ten bucks to pay the registration fee. So I can well imagine how hard it is for our poorest students now." But the major concern of most Senators, Cooper, sums up, "is control of the curriculum. There is tension along the line that separates the Board of Trustees' authority to set curriculum and the faculty's obligation to teach and create a curriculum." This "one size fits all mentality" Cooper finds particularly inapt for a consortium of campuses with such distinctive individual identities, suggesting a comparison: "Do you think HMOs have done a good job in improving the healthcare system? We have an educational version of HMO policy."

Sohmer suggests another parallel-with so many disastrous public housing projects built with the best of liberal intentions but "with uncritical thinking." Cooper is reminded immediately of an architectural embodiment of Sohmer's "uncritical thinking," asking the interviewer, "Have you ever walked through the NAC building [at City College]? Now there was a smart decision!"

Another general concern among Senators is worry that the University's current complex testing and remediation initiatives may be upstaging the fundamental task, as Cooper phrases it, "of deciding what should be the intellectual activities of the faculty, both for their own development and the rethinking of the undergraduate curriculum. We need to be focusing, for example, on how to bring about interdisciplinary education and reward interdisciplinary work and, for another example, how we assess the electronic publications of our colleagues. Core issues of our intellectual agenda like these end up getting shortchanged in the political wars."

Sohmer notes the Senate's efforts to affect University policy, notably through the several major annual CUNY-wide conferences it has sponsored for many years. Among the topics for these have been One University for Many Cultures, Strengthening College Governance, Fostering Research and Scholarship, and Learning Technologies. Sohmer then offers one example of a problem the Senate feels needs solution now.

"In the laboratory sciences, when a bright young scholar arrives at CUNY there is almost invariably a one-and-a-half to two-year 'hiatus' in getting their labs up and running. In areas of fast-moving, cutting-edge science, such delay is disastrous." Sohmer blames the crippling "down time" on glacial bureaucracy: "you just can't get anything done in a reasonable time."

Cooper draws attention, as Sohmer had, to the University's dependency on adjuncts, suggesting not only the obvious solution-hiring more full-time faculty-but also urging a probing for imaginative, inventive ways to ameliorate the unpleasant ripple-effects of the status quo. And it is a national status quo, Sohmer adds, offering a bracing anecdote: "When my daughter was a grad student at Harvard, she taught a basic freshman course-and in a field she had no expertise in!"

"We must improve the conditions for adjuncts, so that they can be compensated for the office hours their students desperately need, for reading and giving feedback on their papers," Cooper says. She floats, for example, the notion of breaking up full-time lines as a possible avenue. In addition to upgrading "seriously inadequate" adjunct medical benefits, the senators clearly feel more should be done to help adjuncts do their teaching effectively. Cecelia McCall points to the threshold need to "give part-timers who don't even have an office a place in which to work and interact with students, instead of having hurried conferences in the classroom or hallways." And she also commiserates with adjuncts whose personal research suffers as they travel to teach on multiple campuses.

Sohmer notes a another debilitating effect of high adjunct percentages: "Inevitably, this diminishes the availability of advanced courses in a department, which in turn can lead to a depletion of majors in a department, and finally the major evaporates. We have lost departments in that way over the years."

Both Sohmer and Cooper return emphatically, at conversation's end, to the need for University faculty to constantly renovate and recreate their discipline. "To decide that the canon is 'frozen' in the time one was beginning a scholarly career is a terrible thing to do to the next generation. We owe it to the next generation to educate them in the world of knowledge which 'is' rather than 'was.' Or, the interviewer suggests, as Celia so succinctly says in Shakespeare's As You Like It, "Was is not is." McCall challenges the State of New York to give the City University the resources to match its surroundings. "Look, New York is in so many ways the capital of the world, the cultural capital of the world. It should also be the educational capital of the world, and CUNY can play a part in that. Indeed, the University should be the centerpiece of that."

Unanimity on that point was exceeded only by the shared feeling among the three senators that the health of the University depends on the fullest possible participation by the faculty in the University's elected faculty governance bodies.