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,"
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."
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!"
Senate Chair Bernard Sohmer now andd in 1954, at a City College faculty meeting.|
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."
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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
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!"
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."
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!"
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."
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.