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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Jennifer Raab

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-09-19

Whenever Jennifer Raab looks out of her office window at Hunter College, she sees her life being replayed.

There's the Number 4 bus which she would take daily from the Washington Heights home of her parents, Harry and Lillian. There's the stop where she would alight to make her way to Hunter College High School. There's Lexington Avenue and its bustling subway entrances. Occasionally she might recognize passers-by, colleagues from her days as a litigator at two of New York's most prestigious law firms, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

If she peers far enough, Ms. Raab may even see a building or two that were declared landmarks during her tenure as the longest serving chairman of the city's Landmark Preservation Commission.

I've been incredibly lucky in life - but nothing was ever guaranteed to me," Ms. Raab said. "And I'm especially privileged to be at the institution where I am now."

That institution is the 135-year-old Hunter College, and Ms. Raab is its 13th president. Now in her fourth year as head of a college that has four separate schools within its precincts, and some 20,500 students.

So with a stellar resume like that, what's there left to do? Jump into electoral politics?

Ms. Raab answered that one with anecdote.

"When Dwight Eisenhower left his job as Columbia's University's president to run for the White House, he said that he just needed to get out of politics," she said.

The fact that politics is pervasive in any academic institution is a given, and faculty rivalries sometimes are grist for the media mill. But Ms. Raab came to Hunter after seven years at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, to which she'd been appointed by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani - a Democrat serving in a Republican administration. That experience surely fortified her for the presidency of one the nation's best known college, one that has traditionally been sought out by students from immigrant families.

As president, she belongs to a special club: she's one of just 237 women presidents of America's 2,000 colleges and universities. She's also a college president who wasn't ever a faculty member. Perhaps that's why she takes special interest in cultivating Hunter's faculty.

"I encourage faculty members to talk to one another," Ms. Raab said. "We have 535 full-time faculty and dozens of adjunct professors - and so I often introduce teachers to other teachers that they might not ordinarily meet. Management is something I enjoy."

Part of her management style is accessibility. She emphasizes cutting edge technology. She digs into her huge Rolodex to invite the city's prominent players to visit Hunter. She holds regular lunches for faculty members, who earn between $40,000 and $93,000. She often dines with students. She attends student debates. She buttonholes students and peppers them with questions about their lives and academic experience.

"I like to listen - especially to students' aspirations," Ms. Raab said. "You can't run an institution like this until you understand who your students are. Hunter College is where the American Dream comes true."

The pursuit of her own special dream began at Hunter College High School, where she excelled as a student. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell University. Then Ms. Raab went on to earn a master's degree in public affairs at Princeton University's the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

And to top it all off, she graduated cum laude from Harvard University Law School, after which she became a litigator.

"As a litigator you learn to get the facts right - and that's an approach I've taken throughout my career," Ms. Raab said. "Such an approach prepares you to maximize available tools for good education, and manage resources."
Hunter's resources - its annual budget is $150 million - largely come from the state. In fact, Ms. Raab has directed that the student body should not grow beyond its present figure, and that more efforts should be poured into meeting students' academic needs as well as administration.

That is why she spends considerable time raising money for special programs, especially in arts and sciences. Hunter's fees are a fraction of what most private colleges charge: undergraduates pay $4,000 annually, and graduate students pay $6,000.

"When our students graduate, they have the lowest debt imaginable incurred on their academic work," Ms. Raab said. "When business leaders ask me, 'Where's the city's work force going to come from?' I ask them to look at Hunter graduates. They are highly motivated, most know how to manage money well, and they have a wonderful work ethic."

Concerned that many high school students who enter Hunter aren't adequately prepared by public schools in the sciences, Ms. Raab, in cooperation with the city's Department of Education, established a special high school to train students - particularly from minority communities - for college. About $400,000 came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The reporter returned to the question of what Jennifer Raab might do next.

"I live in the moment," she said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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