Farsighted Dynamo

April 26, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

Innovative President Lisa S. Coico emphasizes scholarship, leadership, community service.

As a scientist, Lisa S. Coico is president of City College of New York at a crucial, exciting time. A unique, CUNY and City College research campus is rising on CCNY’s south campus, adding to the New York State Structural Biology Center already there to bring a world-class “research triangle” to Harlem.

Coico, appointed in 2010 after serving as Temple University’s provost, describes the college as “a university within a university.”  Its new collaboration with Stanford University, she says, will make it even more so.

“ Diversity truly is the strength of this campus.” — President Coico

City College was established in 1847 as the Free Academy, the flagship of what ultimately became CUNY. President Coico, determined to bolster history with action, hopes to attract more top-notch scholar/teachers, as well as more extraordinary students to a school already distinguished by them. She also believes in nurturing those already on board and holds monthly roundtables with faculty, staff and students.

At her meetings with students, Coico discovered she has a lot in common with many of them.

Both of the president’s grandmothers – one born in Italy – were “functionally illiterate.” Her father’s mother began work in a sweatshop when she was 8 years old.

Coico graduated from Brooklyn College (’76), earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from Cornell, and has had an eclectic but impressive career in higher education, which included a deanship, also at Cornell.

She tells students: “Yes, you can sit in this seat. And if you want to be the first female secretary general of the United Nations — you can do that, too. The fact that your parents don’t speak English or that, perhaps, your grandparents were never allowed to be educated doesn’t mean anything. City College is a great equalizer.”

The president is determined to provide students with more financial, educational and moral support. A New York Rangers hockey fan, she also wants to strengthen the sports programs.

Many of her students, she says, are working and raising families, and tuition increases are coming. She is ever vigilant about raising private funds, and whenever there’s an opportunity, she makes her case. If she encounters older alumni who prefer “hard copy” to digital information, she’s ready, handing out a clipboard, a newly sharpened pencil and a brochure: “Let’s Keep It Going for the Next Generation.”

How have your initial impressions of City College’s students deepened?

I knew this was an exciting, diverse student body, but what I didn’t know was how having 90 languages spoken on your campus truly enriches the conversation. Students with different worldviews sit side by side. About half of our students were born in a different country. They are amazingly tenacious. And they are amazingly unspoiled. They don’t expect entitlements. In fact, I did not realize how much our students need to be taught to expect more from their experience. A college like this has to look at students of promise — and be there with scholarship dollars. And it has to do this with an eye towards diversity. Diversity truly is the strength of this campus.

Late last year Cornell University won a bid to build a state-of-the art tech campus on Roosevelt Island. City College, already in partnership with Stanford, had hoped it would win the bid. Can you make “lemonade” out of this disappointment?

Yes. We are continuing our partnership with Stanford, and are already setting up the framework for joint degrees and for summer institutes. What was really a blessing was that this truly created a partnership with Stanford that is not dependent on winning the New York City bid. And I am a Cornellian, too, so of course I am also looking for Cornell opportunities.

City College is renowned for its science programs. As a scientist yourself, could you speak about how CCNY is changing with the times?

We have a very strong history in the STEM disciplines. Our new building and the CUNY-wide research center are changing the conversation about science here; after all, science in the 21st century has itself evolved from the science that I studied in the 70s and 80s. Interdisciplinarity — the fundamental driver for the design of these new buildings — is the key

Our greatest strength is in the highly quantitative sciences: Chemistry, physics, and the “applied science” of engineering. At the same time we are increasing our strength in biology and biomedical science. Our Stanford partnership came about because of the perception of City College in California as traditionally strong, and innovative. They know City College for its engineering. They know City College for its Nobel Laureates. They know City College because several of our recent graduates are in their physics graduate programs. They know that we had two more Truman Scholars last year; the only other university to get more than two that year was Stanford! Our students really shine. They are our best advertisement. We are ranked 38th nationally for sending minority students to medical school.

You say that City College, as an institution, is undergoing a “revolution.” What does this mean?

I don’t like to call what is happening here a renaissance because we were always a flagship college. We are still bright, exciting and innovative, but the new generation has new societal needs. So we have the Colin Powell Center for

Leadership and Service. Our students learn leadership.

They spend time in the community and return to do cap

stone-type projects that integrate their experiences in the classroom with real world experiences. This is also why I established the presidential community scholars — students from neighborhood high schools who are given free scholarships here. We gave five the first year I came. We now have nine and we’re hoping to have 30 next year. The students are required to give back six to seven hours to their community each week. They are chosen by guidance counselors and teachers so the scholarship is based on more than grades. I also see a future City College as more well-rounded, having a lot more arts and culture, like it did when we had Lewiston stadium here. We’ve established the New Harlem Arts Theater and the summer repertory theater that’s gotten great reviews.

What else do you see as your mission?

We need to take the next leap and continue to meet the needs of a knowledge-based society, a global society. We have the global piece with our students. We need to be recruiting more students who we know can succeed. We need to continue with an inclusive perspective and value all different voices. The most creative ideas I ever got as a scientist in a lab were from my students — they weren’t afraid of the rules and regulations and could think thoughts I would never have considered acceptable. But they worked.

How would you describe yourself?

I am a risk taker in many ways. After I got my Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology, I changed fields dramatically. I went from basic immunology to skin biology. When I walked into the Burn Center of what is now New York Presbyterian Hospital — then one of the largest burn centers in the world — everything about it made me feel that this was the right place for me to be. So I became a basic scientist in a clinical department — a department of surgery, comprised of all men and myself. (The more typical path for a woman scientist would have been a cell biology department, a basic science department.) Instead, I was the first woman tenured in that department.

I have often re-created myself. On a personal note, I have been a singer. I have done competitive ballroom dancing. I’m not afraid to look foolish. It’s just part of whom I am. It’s what makes life fun. I don’t take crazy risks like jumping out of airplanes. But I take risks in places where somebody needs to think in a slightly different way than the traditional.

How has the CUNY you knew as a student changed?

It’s clearly much more diverse than the CUNY I knew at Brooklyn College and to the better … but we are more alike than different. I found my passion for science at Brooklyn College through my professors, as students find their passions today. I see as many dedicated professors today as I had when I was a student.

What is your life in New York like?

I’m a New Yorker — and my children are nearby. I love the pace. I love that you can find a restaurant at any time of the day. I love the theater. It’s great being back in New York.