BY JOE MARVILLI
Queens College has seen a renaissance over the last dozen years, with new programs, new buildings, new technology and a new attitude. At the center of these massive changes has been Dr. James Muyskens, who took over as president of the school in July 2002.
Facing many challenges to revitalize the college’s academics, fundraising, culture and student body, Muyskens spearheaded accomplishments like the creation of the college’s first residence hall, the addition of new courses, the hiring of top-tier faculty and the improvement of student outreach.
As he wraps up his time as president, Muyskens talked about his time at Queens College, what led him there and his plans for the future.
Before Queens College
Muyskens was first inspired to get involved in education as a high school student in South Dakota. He had a “superb” math teacher and thought about becoming one himself. Once he got to college though, he did not find math as challenging and switched to philosophy. Besides setting him on a new educational path, Muyskens’ college experiences inspired what he wanted to do at Queens College as president.
“I went to a small liberal arts college, had an opportunity to interact with the faculty that were teaching me. I really wanted that here,” he said. “That is one of the truly exciting things about Queens College. We’re big, far bigger than the place I went to as an undergraduate, but when we do student satisfaction surveys, right at the top of the list of things that students are happy about is their ability to interact with faculty.”
Getting a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Michigan, Muyskens wound up beginning his career in the CUNY system, at Hunter College. Once there, he fell in love with the mission of CUNY, part of which is to provide high-quality, accessible education to students who may otherwise not have had the chance to attend college.
“I actually could have gone to more of an elite type of institution, where the students would be more upper-middle class,” he said. “But to be able to teach students who are the first in their family to go to college and then to make a difference in their lives, that really got me.”
After a couple of other jobs, Muyskens was approached by Queens College to become its ninth president. Although he said he was not looking for another job, he was once again drawn in by CUNY’s and Queens College’s mission as well as the opportunities New York City had to offer.
A New Type Of Campus
According to Muyskens, he arrived at a campus that looked tired and rundown. He was concerned that some people referred to the school as “just Queens College.” It was this attitude that he set out to change.
“We need to make sure people truly have pride in this place,” he said. “That people want to say ‘I work at Queens College’ or ‘I go to Queens College.’”
To help create this environment, Muyskens felt that people had to be on-campus and involved in campus activities more often. As a result, Queens College opened its first residence hall, the Summit Apartments, in August 2009. The struggle to make that a reality was one of his biggest battles, but once it opened, the building was a success.
“Now the students who are in drama and theater can do productions, and their friends and other students see them. The athletes are watched in their games and their performances,” Muyskens said.
Additionally, Muyskens wanted to make sure Queens College fully served the wide array of students that walk through its doors each year. Given that Queens is the most diverse Borough in the world, the president wanted a strong faculty and campus to greet them and expose them to new ideas.
Just having a diverse student body is not enough, he said. During Muyskens’ time, Queens College has hired a large number of faculty members who are not only strong teachers and researchers, but also love instructing the type of students who attend the college. Muyskens said he is proud of programs like LunchTime 2.0, which was developed in the Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding. Students trained to engage other students go to the cafeteria and mix students together, rather than having them only interact with their own ethnic group.
“We’re the portal for immigration. If you’re with people from all over the world, you’ll find the person sitting next to you doesn’t hold your beliefs at all. That’s a fantastic place to be if you’re going to figure out what do you believe, what are your values, what do you really think is important,” Muyskens said.
Besides becoming more varied during Muyskens’ time, Queens College’s campus has also become more populated. When he arrived, the population was under 15,000 students. Now, that number has grown to about 20,000 students.
One of the biggest objectives for Muyskens was to increase low-income student outreach, hoping to give them a chance to achieve in college and make their way up the economic ladder. Washington Monthly’s 2013 college guide ranked Queens College second in its “Best Bang for the Buck” list.
“To give them a chance is so exciting. We helped them develop those skills,” Muyskens said. “That’s what higher education really should be. That’s the goal we’ve been working on for the last decade.”
Moving With The Times
While the college’s student population reflects the demographics of the 21st century, Muyskens has helped the campus itself keep up with present-day technology, environmentalism and job opportunities.
Having Queens College on the cutting edge of new technology meant hiring faculty who were involved with research and development at that level, an objective Muyskens pushed forward. One of the faculty members, Andrew Rosenberg, worked on improving the speech synthesis quality for Watson, the IBM computer that competed on “Jeopardy.” Another faculty member is working on technology to help those who are blind.
While using YouTube and other widely-available technology for projects is a basic example of what most students are doing, Muyskens said that many classes are really diving into what today’s innovations can do for their studies.
“We’ve done all sorts of experimenting with technology. Virtually all of our classes are going to be using technology in some way. They’re trying all sorts of things in the classroom,” he said. “This is an area where it’s changing so fast, it’s hard to keep up.”
Queens College is also using advancements made in the last decade to create a green-conscious school. It has made significant changes in terms of its environmentally-friendly policies and development.
“One of our strategic goals is to be an example for our students for what you have to be like for a sustainable future,” Muyskens added.
When the Summit residence hall was completed, it met the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) requirements for gold certification. LEED buildings are ranked on a scale of 100 points, with platinum certification being the only ranking above gold. The structures are judged on five categories: sustainable sites, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, water efficiency and indoor environmental quality.
Muyskens spent a large portion of his last year as president in Queens Hall, rather than in the President’s Office at Kiely Hall. That building is undergoing renovations to improve its energy-efficiency. The work will install new walls and replace inefficient ventilators, heating and cooling systems with less-draining alternatives.
“We’re renovating that space to be truly energy-efficient, to have the right kind of multiple pane windows and all those things,” Muyskens said. “Everyone’s paying a certain price for this in terms of convenience. But when it’s finished, it will be a visible symbol of our commitment to energy conservation.”
As impressive as all the improvements to the campus are, the focus of a student body’s everyday life is the curriculum. With the world caught up in a decade of change, Muyskens added courses to reflect the job opportunities of today and tomorrow.
The president updated the school’s general education class offerings, as well as adding new programs in business administration, neuroscience, graphic design, bioinformatics and computer science. Muyskens said that these fields are growing and have continually brought a fresh feel to Queens College, in terms of what students can learn and what the new faculty members can bring to the school altogether.
“We’re always asking ourselves what will really serve students best in the 21st century,” he said. “A curriculum has to be dynamic. It has to change and it changes from two ways. It changes from looking at the future. It also changes as you hire new faculty.”
Of course, Queens College is more than just an undergraduate campus. Due to nationwide changes in education, the number of teachers who are getting jobs has dropped. This has led to a decrease in the number of teachers coming back to get Master’s Degrees at Queens College. To combat this, Muyskens has diversified the school’s offerings at the graduate level, adding degree courses in Fine Arts, business, risk management and more.
The campus is also home to PS 499 and Townsend Harris High School. According to Muyskens, the former has been a huge advantage for education students and the latter has high school students taking college level courses, boosting its profile.
At Queens College, learning does not end once class is over. The campus is full of events, programs and extracurricular activities that offer top-tier entertainment as well as unique learning opportunities.
As part of Muyskens’ objective to create a true melting pot, Queens College launched two programs that celebrate the diversity of the college, the Borough and the planet. Education Abroad gives students the chance to go out into the world, studying in different countries such as Germany, Greece, Italy, Oman and Japan, for up to a year.
Students that cannot make such a trip are not left out of the loop either. Every year, Queens College celebrates a different country with its “Year Of…” program. Using the expertise of people on campus, the program gives students a year-long crash course on life in countries like India, China, Turkey and Brazil, this year’s selection. The program permeates the entire campus, from dance to art to music and even sports. There were cricket games last year on campus and soccer this year.
“Here’s an idea whose time has come. It’s been that way ever since, just real enthusiasm,” Muyskens said.
The president has worked to make sure that Queens College’s cultural offerings spread beyond the walls of the campus. With the massive work done on the Kupferberg Center of the Arts as the centerpiece, the college has worked to attract A-list talent to its now state-of-the-art facilities, such as LeFrak Concert Hall.
From recent headliners like Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby and Cyndi Lauper to student productions of musicals like “South Pacific,” the Kupferberg Center has become a draw to the City as a whole, with packed houses for all of its shows.
Given all the work that Muyskens has put into making Queens College’s cultural scene bloom, he was happy that he got a chance to participate in a performance during his last month as president. He read “Twas The Night Before Christmas” at Colden Auditorium, with the Boston Pops backing him.
“Oh, it was so much fun. We worked so hard on the arts, it’s sort of fitting for me in my last month here to be able to stand up there with the Boston Pops behind me, supporting my narration,” he said.
Fundraising and Research
All of the renovations, expansions and creations that Muyskens spearheaded would not have been possible without the funds to support them. Therefore, the president had to push forward on a massive fundraising campaign. Fortunately, the alumni of Queens College have been very supportive over the last decade. Muyskens said the school completed its first campaign of $100 million and is close to completing a second campaign of $150 million.
“If you can say, look what we’re doing here, we transform students’ lives. We can be the cultural hub of the Borough of Queens. We have faculty here that are second to none. Then people want to give,” he said.
Besides fundraising, Queens College has also made strides to get more research grants, another field where Muyskens wants the school to be a major player. While they used to bring in about $10 million in grants, that number is now around $25 million. Muyskens attributed this to the faculty recruiting that the college has done, as many are either involved heavily in research or they know how to get grants.
While Muyskens spent a lot of time looking back and talking about all of his achievements at Queens College, he also addressed his future. He plans to do some consulting, to use his experiences to help new presidents in a confidential manner. Next fall though, he will begin working as a university professor for CUNY. Although he was still figuring out which school he will teach at, Muyskens was excited by the prospect.
“That’s the dream job. It gives me an opportunity to be in the classroom,” he said. “I can do the thing I love most, which is teaching. But I won’t have the 24/7 grind of managing a huge institution like this.”
Although he did teach on-and-off during his years as president at Queens College, he said he was not able to fully dedicate himself to just being a professor, as the responsibilities of his presidency always called to him.
“Any problem that happens on campus involves the president. If the heating and cooling system is out in a building, the president has to be involved. If something horrible happens, the president has to stand before the press to deal with it,” he said. “You can be teaching a class and then be distracted.”
Muyskens added that he plans to give the new president, who has yet to be selected, plenty of space, but he hopes to be invited back for openings and dedications. His advice for his successor? He or she should love the mission of CUNY and be ready to take advantage of all the exciting changes happening in Queens.
“What we have now, with this incredible mix of people, people doing very well from different ethnic groups, working together. That’s the future. We just got there first,” he said. “A new president should really find that exciting and want to be a leader in figuring out how we can best live with this rich worldwide diversity.”
Having overcome numerous challenges, Muyskens leaves Queens College with many large-scale projects accomplished. Although he said there is always time to do more, he is happy with how much the college has been able to achieve during his time as president.
“Opportunities always come along. You don’t even know they’re coming and you want to take advantage of them. We developed a strategic plan for 2008 to 2013. It had rather ambitious goals like the residence hall, like the Kupferberg Center, like developing some of the departments,” he said. “The amazing thing is we did it. We really did it.”
Reach Joe Marvilli at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @Joey788.