At the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the last week of February began with the announcement that Cathy N. Davidson and Ken Wissoker, from Duke and Duke University Press respectively, would be joining our faculty. It ended with the news that Paul Krugman, from Princeton University, would be doing the same. "One of the country’s academic power couples" is how The Chronicle described Davidson and Wissoker; she is arguably the most innovative contributor to debates about technology and education, and he the most influential commissioning editor in the humanities. Krugman, a Nobel laureate, New York Times columnist, and blogger who alternates barbs with graphs, has an unrivaled presence in American economic and political debate.
"How did you recruit them?"
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked the question, nearly always posed in a tone of incredulous wonderment. The fact is, we recruit from the Dukes and Princetons as a matter of course. Over the last five years, for example, we’ve welcomed faculty members from every Ivy League institution save Dartmouth and Columbia. But only academic insiders know this, and I freely concede that it’s a reasonable question. Opposite moves—from public to private—occasion no such surprise.
It is little wonder, I suppose. In wealth, compensation, and status, the data document clear disparities between private and most public research universities. There is also the familiar narrative of decline: Public education, one constantly reads, is "under siege," "in crisis," and "at the brink/tipping point." In the market for rare talent, disparities in salaries and teaching conditions necessarily privilege wealthy private institutions, and the result is more or less one-way traffic from (presumptively) bootstrapping public to (manifestly) well-heeled private. That it should move in the opposite direction, at a time when states are reducing support for higher education, runs counter to the narrative.
It’s not that we outspend the competition; our budget is too tight for that. Nor is it location. New York City is a vortex of culture, capital, people, and ideas, but it actually cuts both ways, and not merely because of prohibitive costs: Working in a city of this size and density is not to everyone’s taste. Some prefer college greens and ivy-covered walls. We have other constraints as well. We’re a small part of a huge university (CUNY has an enrollment of some 270,000 degree students), with an indistinct name. And although we’re located across the street from the Empire State Building, it’s really our neighbors in Morningside Heights and Greenwich Village who cast the longest shadows.
All universities have particular strengths, and for us the single most important is our focus upon graduate education, especially Ph.D. training. At least in the humanities and social sciences, research universities typically ask their faculty members to teach and mentor undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. students and to serve on committees that support those very different populations of students—and much more besides. Our faculty members work as hard as any, but our narrower mission allows them to integrate teaching and research more closely. We are also very fortunate to draw upon the enormous strength of CUNY colleges, and those faculty members are invaluable to our departments and students.
We’re successful for two more reasons, and neither is unique to us.
The first is that we regard our public character as an asset to be trumpeted rather than a handicap to be overcome. Hire after hire has responded to the mission that the Graduate Center volubly affirms: to create and disseminate knowledge, through research, teaching, and public events, for the public good. At a time when private education is increasingly beyond the reach of many people, when average student debt among college seniors who borrow has reached nearly $30,000, and, consequently, when education is seen as a private benefit, the mission resonates more than ever. Our faculty is justly proud to be involved in the gratifying venture of educating ambitious and diverse students in a university, such as CUNY, that maintains the public trust. In this respect, the public university’s scale is its ally: The teaching carried out in a small graduate seminar carries on in undergraduate classes taught by our graduate students as part of their training.
Second, we have learned that fortune is the residue of design. No one can predict when a prized scholar becomes free to move, but we have seen on numerous occasions that investment in areas of conspicuous promise delivers recruitment returns. The digital humanities, technology and education, and the interdisciplinary study of income inequality are cases in point; the theoretical sciences are another. It is in large measure because we have been cultivating those fields over the last few years that our new colleagues are joining us. We have built, and they have come.
That sounds trite, but it’s worth emphasizing that scholars respond to opportunity and, increasingly, to the promise of collaboration. Interdisciplinarity can be overhyped, but we have put in place structures that transcend and complement departmental organization, placing students, postdocs, and junior and senior faculty members together in research-driven seminars. So what we’ve been building are not buildings, but communities and partnerships. Last year a candidate for a position in the humanities was keen to meet with a recently hired computer scientist, who had been drawn to the Graduate Center a year earlier in part to work with a political scientist who had herself joined us two years earlier. The computer scientist is now co-teaching with the political scientist. And the humanities professor is now at the Graduate Center.
In sum, we have been heeding what might be called the Tao of LeBron. When LeBron James decided to leave Cleveland and enter the free-agent market, teams responded by maximizing payroll flexibility in order to offer the most generous terms. Why did he go to the Miami Heat, a relatively small-market team? The answer he gave at the time has since been proved correct twice: It was because in Miami he could find an assembly of complementary talent—the promise of collaboration—that maximized his chances for success.
Exceptionally talented academics also have choices, and they make them in ways that maximize their odds for success. The promise of both intellectual ferment and broad impact is one choice. Opportunities for substantive and interdisciplinary collaboration are another.