A Conversation with Dean Ann Kirschner

Rahul: Good afternoon, we are so happy to have here with us today Dean Ann Kirschner. For our readers and listeners, Dean Kirschner is the University Dean at the Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York. Dean Kirschner received her undergraduate degree at SUNY Buffalo and her master’s from the University of Virginia before obtaining her PhD from Princeton University. She’s had quite a fascinating career, as an entrepreneur, writer and educator, among other things. She has helped create PRIMETIME 24, NFL.COM, and FATHOM. She has written Sala’s Gift, which we will discuss more in depth today. In addition, she has served as a lecturer and worked in administration throughout her career. Dean Kirschner, we’d like to thank you for taking the time out to join us for an interview with The Macaulay Messenger today and are excited to speak with you.

Dean Kirschner: Thank you, it’s my pleasure to be here.

Rahul: So, Dean, as I mentioned in the introduction, you’ve had quite an interesting path as a writer, entrepreneur and administrator, among other careers. Can you tell us more about your different experiences and how they have helped you grow?

Dean Ann Kirschner
Dean Ann Kirschner

Dean Kirschner: I think like most people, my so-called career planning has been very ad hoc. I can see the patterns that led me from one to the other, but at the time, it was mostly just luck and opportunity that I was responding to. I have a tremendous interest in new models for doing things, whether it’s new models for education, new models for communication, new models for entertainment. I think that’s really the driving force for me. Every year brings new technologies and new opportunities, and that’s kind of what I’ve followed throughout my career.

Rahul: So it’s been an interesting path just going from writer to entrepreneur, what helped you go in that direction and get to where you are today?

Dean Kirschner: I’d like to thank my mother and my father as well as members of the academy for this honor (laughter). I think, for me, everything starts with a supportive family that believed in the power of education to change lives like a lot of Macaulay students, I’m from an immigrant family. My mother’s education ended in 1939 when the Nazis invaded Poland and she was forced to leave school and she was only 15 at the time. So, when she came to the United States, she basically went to public school with me, in a sense. She learned English when I learned English. So I think everything, for me, begins with supportive family and with the power of public, free education to change lives.

Rahul: To build off that, you were speaking about your mother. Your first book, I believe it is, the first one, it’s called Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story. Can you tell us a little bit more about your book?

Dean Kirschner: Oh, that was the great, wonderful adventure of my life, really. I knew my mother was a Holocaust survivor and I knew that she had been in a camp, but where she had been and what her experiences had been and I knew she was the youngest of 11, what happened to her all of her other siblings? I didn’t know any of that. It’s hard to imagine that you could grow up not knowing what happened to your aunts and uncle, or your grandparents for that matter. But my mother was so, so deliberate and serious about drawing a curtain against the past that for my brothers and I, it was clear that this was a totally forbidden area. We just didn’t ask questions after awhile. So I grew up not knowing anything about her past until she was having open heart surgery and just a few days before she was scheduled to go into the hospital, she came to visit me and brought me a box. I opened the box, totally not knowing what to expect, and what was in the box, what turned out to be about 350 letters and documents and photographs that she had received while she was in seven different Nazi camps. That day was the beginning of what was really a 15-year journey to understand the story behind the letters, figure out who wrote them, why they wrote them, where they were, what happened to them. And in the course of it, I’ve got, you know, it’s sort of like being a time traveler, I got to go back to my mother’s past and understand what had happened to her and to her family.

Rahul: Is there something in particular that stood out to you amongst the letters and pictures that you mentioned in the book, or something that just comes to mind when you think of your book in particular, about that box of treasures?

Dean Kirschner: I think that what comes to my mind is the story of a beautiful, outgoing, resourceful 16-year-old girl from a very, very poor family who suddenly has her world turned upside down. Her language, her culture, her religion, her clothes; everything is just taken from her and she has to navigate this unbelievable world. On the one hand, it’s a story as personal to me as the story of my mother. On the other hand, when you look at the world today, whether it’s Syria or another war torn part of the world, there’s a Sala out there today and how do you make sense of the world when it doesn’t make any sense? So, I think seeing my mother who is now 90 years old and not in very good health, reminding myself of the incredible power of one individual to get yourself through the darkest days, not only of your life, but of history, I think that’s what really stands out to me.

Rahul: Great to hear that. Moving onto your entrepreneur career, one of the things that you helped start was FATHOM.COM. That’s the first online learning program which you formed in conjunction with Columbia University. We are now seeing the rise of programs such as edX and MIT OpenCourseWave. Where do you see the future of higher education heading?

Dean Kirschner: I’m very proud of what we did at Fathom. It really is a marker, when you think about MOOCs, we were basically doing that a dozen years ago. So, I think if you look at the progression over time, what you see is that just as you saw in the music industry or in media in general, control is coming back to the consumer. The old formats are being broken wide open. If you think about, in my college days, I would go out and I would buy vinyl LP. You would play it the way it was produced. It would begin at the beginning and end at the end. We tend to think college is like that too. You graduate from high school, you’re going to start college, and four years later, you’re going to come out a finished graduate of an undergraduate institution. I think that those days are changing. I was going to say that those days are numbered, but that sounds so ominous. It’s not ominous, that’s actually exciting. I think that we’re going to find many new ways for people to have access to learning and a lot of that is going to be enabled by technology. For some kinds of classes, I was just talking to a group of students about Professor Patraeus’s seminar. What could ever replace 15 great students sitting around a table with a fantastic professor with really interesting content, basically mixing it up about the great issues of the day? No technology is ever going to replace that. But it was 15 students. How do I find ways to engage 1,500 students or 15,000 students? The world is very needy when it comes to education. So what I see long term in the changes is finding ways to democratize education, make it more accessible to more people, retaining the old values that a small seminar and critical thinking skills can provide, but also recognizing that in the 21st century we are going to find new models and new formats of this.

Rahul: You recently were awarded an “Above and Beyond Honoree” by City and State Magazine. What does this honor mean to you?

Dean Kirschner: Service to my city and state, what could be better? (Laughter) I sometimes forget that I am a public servant, but I am a public servant because I serve a public institution. I thought that it was wonderful. I was incredibly flattered, I was in extremely good company, and it’s a reminder that Macaulay is a really strong public and private partnership. We get 70-80 percent of our funding from New York State. New York State has been a very supportive partner to the City University of New York and to Macaulay. And then we have the benefit of extraordinary philanthropists like Bill and Linda Macaulay who provide funding for the special Macaulay experience.

Rahul: So speaking of Macaulay Honors College, what led you to become Dean of Macaulay Honors College, considering your path as an innovator, as a writer, how did you end up becoming the Dean?

Dean Kirschner: The students. From the first time I met my first honors college students, going back to 2006, I saw myself very much in their identity: first in the family to go to college, immigrant family, not too much money, hunger, talent and ambition. Who would not want to work with a group of students like that? The first thing that appealed to me was the students. The fact that it was a public institution and that all of my education until my PhD was in public institutions had tremendous appeal for me because I believe in the importance of public institutions to change lives. And I am a New Yorker. I am a lifelong native New Yorker and to be able to do this struck me as a great honor and a great next step for my career.

Rahul: Well, Dean Kirschner, under your watch, Macaulay has increased its standards for incoming students, has had multiple Rhodes scholars among other scholarships, and has seen its students accepted to some of the top professional and graduate students in the nation. What has been your proudest moment as Dean?

Dean Kirschner: My proudest moment as Dean? I’d like to think I haven’t had it yet. (Laughter) There are still mountains to climb. We’ve doubled the size of the class and increased the quality. It’s not supposed to work that way. Usually, when you double the size, you are going to see a diminution of quality, but we didn’t see any of that. I think that it’s a thrill when students are, especially this time of year, when they tell me they’ve been admitted to Harvard Medical School or Stanford Law or NYU, or they’ve gotten jobs at Goldman Sachs, or whatever it is. It’s the recognition of the power of this place that we are changing lives. It’s hard for me to point to any single moment, but I’d say that the moment when I can glean commencement, and I get a sense of what that moment means to the mothers and fathers who are in that audience, I mean that just gets me every time. See I could cry now! I’m practicing! (Laughter) I brought up the Super Bowl because there’s no doubt that, for me, the most exciting moment I had at five years at the NFL was the first time we put the Super Bowl online. I thought: “Oh my God, I am never going to have a moment like that again.” And it was an unbelievable moment, but every graduation matches it, every single graduation. So, I’m lucky, most people don’t get highlights like that and I’ve had a lot of them.

Rahul: As we look towards your proudest moment, what do you see as the future of Macaulay and what are some new strategies of growth that are being considered as we move forward?

Macaulay Honors College's W. 67th Street Building
Macaulay Honors College’s W. 67th Street Building

Dean Kirschner: The single biggest challenge that we have that I don’t feel that we have cracked the code on is the community of the Macaulay students. I hear it time and time again, and I see it all the time: you don’t have enough opportunities to be together. You start off with orientation, there’s the whole class and the feelings are great, and then you come together again at Commencement and in between, we try our best, we try lots of things, but it’s very hard to have a student body of 2,000 students on eight campuses with most of you commuters on those campuses. It’s very hard to build a community. So I think that is, has been, and will continue to be our number one challenge. We’re addressing it in a lot of different ways. We’ve tried all types of different things. I would say going forward, one of the things we are moving toward already, that we piloted this January, is creating study-abroad opportunities with the opportunities fund to bring groups of Macaulay students, probably no bigger than 30, to study abroad as a team to tackle a big issue and travel together. The first one that we did was in the Dominican Republic; the question was looking at challenges in global health: the future of water. It did what we wanted and two, it was a transformative experience for the students who went on that trip. They worked as a team. It was a cross-campus community and it brought everybody together around the shared intellectual purpose, which had a strong social justice component to it. So we are going to take that as our pilot project and try and create 9 or 10 of those signature projects. So, Macaulay students who elect those will be drawn to them depending on what their major is, what their professional aspirations are. This one was ideal for pre-med students, for nursing students, for people who were interested in public health. Also, engineering students who were interested in engineering issues around clean water and students interested in public policy. So that’s one of the community strategies that we will deploy. Ultimately, what I really want to do is have a Macaulay campus where the Macaulay students will live together for a relatively short period of time: a semester or a summer. My dream has always been to put that on Governor’s Island. I hope one of you Macaulay alums will be so wonderfully successful that we will call it the XYZ Campus right after you; perhaps it will be you! That would be great. I think that, see for someone who loves technology as much as I do, I still also recognize that there’s no replacement for face-to-face and until we give you more time together, you won’t be the network that you deserve.

Rahul: It seems, from my experiences and from just speaking about this new opportunity that Macaulay is pushing forward, two facets of the opportunity that are coming forward are the opportunities fund and the public service commitment that are part of Macaulay’s identity. What would you say defines Macaulay’s identity and what different parts of it make it up?

Dean Kirschner: To me, Macaulay identity is about striving for a better world. For some students, that will translate literally into public service. For other students, it will be leadership in their field. If you’re going to be a doctor, you’re going to be the best doctor you can be. If you’re going to be an investment banker, you’re going to be hugely successful and do whatever you do with a sense of a full heart and a sense of a duty to the people around you: a sense of duty and a sense of integrity. So Macaulay students are reinventing – no, they are inventing themselves. There is an entrepreneurial quality to that. There’s no sense of status quo. There’s no sense of, “I am a finished person because my parents made me that way.” No. That’s not who we are. It’s like the city of New York, you come back to a block that you haven’t been on for a while, maybe you haven’t been there in ten years or so, you are going to see that some of the buildings have changed or that the configuration of the traffic will have changed. New York is never finished and I think that’s the energy of Macaulay: we are always remaking ourselves. And that’s the promise we make to students, so that when they come here, they’re not coming to an institution with 150 years of history and you will now become of that tradition. What we’re saying is that you’re making the tradition. You will leave it a different place from how you found it. And that’s really what we want.

Rahul: Building off the notion of remaking Macaulay, something that I have been fortunate to see in my four years here is that we have gone from four cross-campus clubs to 21 now. We have seen a growth in the number of incoming freshmen, coming into the school with quality staying the same, we’ve seen some faculty that are notable and so accomplished in their field. Can you talk about the increase in opportunities for current Macaulay students and what it holds for future Macaulay students who consider the school?

Dean Kirschner: The growth in something like the student clubs is totally coming from student interest. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of this place. You got a good idea? Make it happen. I was talking to one of the seniors at dinner last night, and she was saying, “I would love to start a bowling club.” Five other students said, “Oh wow, we wish you had started a bowling club! We would have came to your bowling club.” Well, someone’s going to create a bowling club. Five years ago, we didn’t have a pre-law club, an entrepreneur’s club, we didn’t have the acapella group the Triplets, we didn’t have a Quidditch team, they all came from students. Students came to us and said we don’t have a newspaper and here we are with the Macaulay Messenger. And I think there’s no greater example of how responsive we want to be, and it’s not because we are such nice people, it’s because the best ideas for how to serve students come from students. And so, I could have said, student newspaper could be really important and I could have spent six months saying let’s start the Macaulay Messenger. How much better was it that a group of students came to us and said we want to start this and we can help. We, Macaulay, the grown-ups can help, and we can support it financially and with other resources but the reality is that these things, the Quidditch, the Triplets, the Macaulay Messenger, the Entrepreneur Society, all of this stuff, comes from students.

Rahul: You speak about the students pushing forward their initiatives. We’ve been fortunate enough to have Dean’s Dinners at your home, we’ve been fortunate to sit down with Mr. Bill Macaulay and Mrs. Linda Macaulay and have lunch with them. How important do you think it is for faculty and administration to be so open to students and have that one on one interaction?

Dean Kirschner: It’s tremendously important. I think that it humanizes this place, it reminds us that it’s not an institution, it’s real live people who work here. I like to think that when students meet Bill and Linda, they are inspired by the Macaulay’s dedication to the college and by the fact they’ve made this huge investment in us. And also, we sort of role model a little bit. Of all the things I’ve done, I think students tend to be probably the most interested in my years in the NFL. Well, that’s okay. I think it’s good for them to understand that you could run a higher education institution; the same person who runs a higher education institute can run a business initiative for the NFL. What I want to model for students is that careers are dynamic, they are not stagnant. They change over time. They are not even linear. They tend to meander all over the place. So I think having the kind of place where faculty and staff and students mix it up is a really, really good thing.

Rahul: We were also able to gather some questions from our readers and ask them what they’d like to ask you. So, one of the things that we do have to ask you is how do out-of-state students fit into Macaulay since students must qualify as New York State residents to receive full tuition?

Dean Kirschner: We are funded primarily by New York State and so, our first obligation is to the taxpayers of New York. It makes all the sense in the world for New York State residents to receive free tuition. The out-of-state students, believe it or not, we’ve got some who are coming who are paying tuition. CUNY tuition is still amongst the most affordable, if not the most affordable, in the entire country. So, even if you look at CUNY tuition, next to out-of-state tuition, next to in-state tuition in some states like New Jersey, it’s less expensive to go to CUNY as an out-of-state student than it is to be a resident of New Jersey and go to Rutgers. So, CUNY’s affordability, I think, is second-to-none. As a value, it’s remarkable. So while I wish we could serve more students with free tuition, I think our first obligation has to be to New York.Mac_redlogo

Rahul: Macaulay recently faced media attention over the appointment of Professor David Patraeus. What was your takeaway or what did you learn from the controversy?

Dean Kirschner: What did I learn from the controversy? Wow, I learned a lot. I think that when you have people of tremendous visibility and accomplishment, not everyone is going to agree on the quality of their experience. And I learned a lot about what I think and some of it surprised me. What I learned, first and foremost, is that my constituency, my primary constituency, is the student body of Macaulay. And so, my litmus test is: “Am I doing right by the students?” I thought I was doing right by the students in recruiting a fabulous professor for them, but the truth of the matter is, I was basing that on his previous experience as a professor. As it turns out, he’s a remarkable faculty member, as any student who has taken his class will tell you. He’s dedicated, he’s very much a presence, he’s very focused on students’ needs, students’ interests. It goes way beyond what happens in the class. When a student wins an award and I tell him about it, he’s the first to reach out to the student. The good news is that I learned about what’s most important to me, which is service to students. And the even better news is that he turned out to be just an extraordinary professor.

Rahul: Absolutely, everyone who has taken his class has only had wonderful things to say. The next question is how does Macaulay plan to increase the program’s name recognition outside of CUNY and New York City?

Dean Kirschner: That’s another hard one like community. That’s a really tough nut to crack. The answer is, in part, time. As we grow, as our alumni get out into the world, they are doing it for us. And they are doing it for us in a couple of ways. One is, if you’re the dean of admissions at a leading law school or medical school or graduate school, I can practically guarantee you that you have heard of Macaulay because you are accepting our students. If you’re a family with a high school student in New York, then you certainly know about us. You asked about outside New York. If we were in any other place other than New York City, we would probably be really, really famous. We happen to be in the media capital of the world, and it’s very hard to make noise. So this is all my apology for not making Macaulay a household name, but we’re on the path. I think that’s the best way to put it. I certainly welcome suggestions on how to do that. Simple things: I’ve noticed that in the beginning, students wouldn’t listen Macaulay on their LinkedIn profiles because it wasn’t on the drop-down menu and I went on a bit of a campaign to say: “Put in Macaulay at City College, Macaulay at Brooklyn College.” And hey, it’s actually working. I rarely hear from a student who hasn’t designated Macaulay as part of their identity. I think we’re making progress.

Rahul: All right, Dean Kirschner, we are down to our last couple of moments. For the last question, as I look towards graduation, as I’m sure many of the other students are looking towards graduation, what is one piece of advice you would give to Macaulay students, both current and future, as they graduate and pursue their future careers?

Dean Kirschner: The confidence in your talent, your preparation, and your ability to succeed. You’re going to be at the table with students who went to private institutions, where the name recognition may be a lot higher, but you are just as well-prepared as they are and I would argue, you are better prepared because you’ve dealt with a student body that is as diverse and interesting as the city of New York. So you’ve sat next to the veteran of the classroom or the single mother returning to school or the person who has been out of work for two years and looking to retool themselves. You’ve done more in the world that you’re about to enter than most college students have done. So you’re intellectually fit and you’re ready to take that great step. So, I would just urge confidence and I would also urge you to stay close to your Macaulay family because this network is the strongest thing you have going for you. Whatever field you are in, there is a Macaulay alum who has preceded you and just make sure that as you step through that door, you hold it open the Macaulay student who is going to follow you because that’s your responsibility. And also, it will be your pleasure because you’ll see yourself in that student.

Rahul: Dean Kirschner, we’d like to thank you again for taking the time out to meet with the Messenger. The students and faculty have been so fortunate to have had you as Dean of the Macaulay Honors College. It was such a pleasure to sit down with you today and we look forward to many more years of your leadership and guidance as Dean.

Dean Kirschner: Thank you so much.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.