Science and Politics Collide in Medgar Evers Faculty Split

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Medgar Evers College is trying to improve graduation and retention rates, but those efforts have divided the school's faculty. Opposition to some of the reforms has become intertwined with fears about a larger demographic change in the neighborhood.

Photo by: Taleen Dersedepanian

Medgar Evers College is trying to improve graduation and retention rates, but those efforts have divided the school's faculty. Opposition to some of the reforms has become intertwined with fears about a larger demographic change in the neighborhood.

At one end of Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway there is a cultural hub consisting of a busy library, a beautiful botanical garden and a world-class museum. Walking distance from there, just a few blocks south of the parkway in Crown Heights, is another key institution, CUNY’s Medgar Evers College

Founded in 1969 by civil rights activists and local organizers who advocated for an institution to meet the needs of Central Brooklyn’s low-income, working-class and largely black community, Medgar Evers (or MEC) has become a familiar resource for the African-American, West Indian and African population that has long occupied its neighborhood.

Now, the rapid gentrification of the area—which is moving those two, separate points on Eastern Parkway closer together in a demographic sense—is raising new questions about what it means to serve the people of Central Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, internal power struggles and signs of resistance to change have made transforming MEC into a higher-performing school an uphill battle.

Fighting Stigmas and Statistics

Many of MEC’s challenges are common to any campus. One is capacity: Due to its open enrollment policy, the number of incoming students consistently rises, which is good for business but makes finding classroom space for all a complicated juggle.

Yet MEC faces some unique challenges as well. Among CUNY’s 24 undergraduate, graduate, professional and community institutions, MEC is one of the four “comprehensive” colleges that offers both bachelor’s and associate’s degrees. Its retention and graduation rates are the worst of the comprehensive schools. In the fall of 2009, the one-year retention rate for MEC was 58 percent, compared with 69 percent for John Jay College, 67 percent for the College of Staten Island and 65 percent for the New York City College of Technology. After four years at Medgar Evers, 8.4 percent of the class that entered in 2006 had graduated, roughly half CUNY’s system-wide rate.

On the bright side, for the first time in recent record, 2011 was the first time that MEC graduated nearly as many Baccalaureates (449) as Associates (478). And MEC officials say statistics don’t address every caveat or every reality on the ground since such a large contingent of students who juggle full-time jobs, care for dependents and commute long distances.

But MEC’s goal, officials say, is still to improve its numbers.

In his “state of the college” address this fall, MEC’s President William Pollard announced his appointment of a strategic planning committee, charged with producing a five-year plan by Spring 2012. What this group of faculty, administrators, students and alumni is tackling primarily is a situational analysis of the college’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (“SWOT”)

To lead the 38-member group Pollard chose a 38-year veteran of the college and Faculty Senate member, Dr. Doris Withers. In an interview, Withers stresses the importance of long-term planning over short-term goals, which she says too many committees before hers had produced.

And although she intends to keep her group motivated by considering MEC’s strengths and opportunities, she acknowledges that addressing weaknesses and threats is where the majority of work must be done.

“I would say that our retention rates is an area that we need to improve,” says Withers, “and our infighting is a major weakness.”

An argument over administration

For the past year, competing factions of MEC’s faculty have been embroiled in a very public dispute over the way the college should be run. On one side is the president and his appointed provost who began instituting sweeping changes upon arrival in 2009. Opposing them is a small band of faculty members calling itself the “Medgar Evers College Coalition for Academic Excellence and Mission Integrity” (or simply “the Coalition”), which is backed by a larger body of outside supporters, all deeply disturbed by how the changes have been executed and communicated.

Somewhere in the middle are the majority of faculty, staff and students coping with problems on the ground such as a growing student body in a time of reduced faculty.

Each side claims their highest priority is to improve the institution’s performance, but they wholly disagree about how to reach that goal. The Coalition wants improved support for MEC’s existing programs. The administration, in some cases, wants to implement new programs. The Coalition has called for high-level resignations; the administration has carried out firings of sub-par performers. Adjunct contracts aren’t being renewed. The Faculty Senate doesn’t meet regularly, Sexual harassment accusations recently emerged against top administrators.

Meanwhile, a new science building has become a pawn in the arguments over MEC’s future.

A new resource, a new challenge
MEC’s new science building, officially called Academic Building 1 or AB1, is a $247 million, six-story, 194,000 square foot facility at 1150 Carroll Street. It houses the School of Science, Health and Technology’s departments of Biology, Math, and Nursing, plus the school’s Physical, Environmental and Computer Sciences programs, includes a hospital simulation room for the Nursing Program as well as 14 labs, and boasts Brooklyn’s only DNA sequencer available to college students.

Since the opening of the new building in the fall of 2010 MEC’s faculty have been focused on better preparing students for science disciplines. “A bridge needs to be created so we get students into the STEM professions and prepare them for exams,” Withers says, referring to the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. She says that would require updated curriculum; she contends that her biology department hasn’t seriously overhauled its curriculum since 1973. She also says instructor training is vital.

One of Medgar Evers College’s biggest challenges is serving the higher education needs of the lower income demographic because so many students enter needing remediation, which is why MEC has served for so long as a teaching college. “This has traditionally been a teaching college,” says chemistry Professor Michele Vittadello, “but with state of the art facilities like this we can become a research school.”

Vitadello says his hope is that by having something as prominent and as central as the new science building, more and more students will get excited about studying in the college’s Science, Health and Technology department which now accounts for 26 percent of degree seekers, behind the more popular Liberal Arts and Education disciplines which attract 43 percent of all full-time students. Vitadello, whose research is being backed by a grant from the U.S. Navy, also stresses the need to attract more “capable people” to teach at the science center.

Similarly, Withers says, “The building can’t deliver instruction. Faculty still needs to teach,” but puts the onus on administrators to organize the training that faculty needs.

Math professor Frank Ragland disagrees. An outspoken, staunch supporter of the new MEC administration, he is adamant that each educator is responsible for their own development. “What each of them should have done last summer,” says Ragland, “was go on research up at Cornell or up at Boston U. or over at Chicago or Northwestern, up at Columbia, free of charge, and rebuild [their] research skills in genetics or microbiology or plasma chemistry or something, and then come back and use those facilities and bring it to the students.”

Some faculty members may have taken these steps, but Ragland says many are still not prepared to use the new science facility. “And so you’ve got here a building that costs up to almost half a billion dollars,” he warns. “CUNY’s not going to let those facilities go to waste.”

A question of control
That, in fact, is a fear among some. Former Congressman Major Owens, now a professor at Medgar Evers College and one of the strongest voices of the Coalition, says he worries CUNY could move departments from a different CUNY college into MEC’s Academic Building. “That new building is primarily a science building with state of the art equipment,” says Owens. “The latest we hear is that they’re going to actually lease out or give some of that building, part of the building, to another college in CUNY because our science department doesn’t have the capacity to fully use all of that state-of-the-art equipment.”

Withers admits there had been a few embarrassing incidents when MEC instructors weren’t yet familiar with the lab’s brand new versions of equipment.

Chris Hundley, a press officer and spokesperson for the CUNY administration, admits he is aware of rumors that the science building could be shared with non-MEC parties. But in an emailed statement he insisted, “There are not any plans for Academic Building I other than for our faculty to continue to conduct research and our students to continue to take classes.”

Deeper Demographic Fears
Despite reassurances from CUNY’s central administration, some faculty still fear AB1 could be descended upon by outsiders. But there is conflicting speculation on who, in which case, would come: Owens says he heard a relationship with Brooklyn College was considered. Withers offers that she heard John Jay inquired with CUNY about using labs.

Concerns about the science building’s fate coincide with larger worries about demographic change sweeping Brooklyn. T. Rasul Murray, a community activist who supports the goals of the Coalition, was on campus November 3 to lead a public “Teach-In” session. “We stand within shouting distance of an expanding other community, that has demonstrably more political power, that is beginning to be evidenced,” he told City Limits. “I suggest you come here on a Sunday and you look at who’s in the science building, it is not us. It’s not programs that are designed for us.”

Some see a link between the faculty divisions over changes at MEC and the fate of the science center.

“They can’t take it if we don’t let them,” says Withers. “The way they’ll take it is if we continue to be a fragmented group of people.”

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