It sounds like the wind-up to a joke: How much of a city girl is Jennifer Raab?
She’s such a city girl that when she first got to Ithaca and saw some basement steps on State Street, she thought it was the subway.
She’s such a city girl that when she closed on her house in the Bronx, she asked if it came with a super.
The president of Hunter College for the past twelve years, Raab was educated outside New York—she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cornell in 1977, then earned a master’s in public affairs from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School and a law degree from Harvard—but has spent most of her life in the five boroughs. In contrast to one New York stereotype, though, she does drive; she commutes by car from her home in Riverdale to the Hunter campus on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), Hunter was founded in 1870 as a teachers’ college, later gaining acclaim for its nursing and social work programs, among others. Originally a women’s school, it went co-ed in the Sixties. A CUNY shift to open admissions four decades ago dealt a blow to its standing, and the policy was abandoned shortly before Raab took office in 2001. Her appointment was controversial; as the New York Times reported at the time, the 10-6 vote of CUNY trustees was greeted with some hisses and boos from the audience. She had not, after all, entered the seventeenth-floor president’s office via the traditional academic route; she may hold three Ivy League degrees, but none of them is a PhD. Backed by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki, Raab came to Hunter from the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, which she led for seven years.
Raab’s resume also includes stints at other city agencies, work as a litigator at two major law firms, and time in politics, including serving as issues director for Giuliani’s unsuccessful 1989 mayoral bid. (“I have a small specialty in losing political campaigns,” she says with a laugh. “So if anyone wants to run but doesn’t really want to win, I’m your girl.”) Her long-standing connections in the city—and her potential as a fundraiser—were among her selling points for the Hunter post; according to her official biography, she has been responsible for garnering more than $150 million in philanthropy. She has spearheaded such projects as the renovation of a decrepit townhouse formerly owned by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt into a public policy institute and the construction of a $131 million home in East Harlem for the School of Social Work. Hunter’s nursing school has partnered with Weill Cornell on numerous research and outreach projects, and Hunter recently purchased a floor of the Medical College’s nearly completed Belfer Research Building. In October, she and Weill Cornell Dean Laurie Glimcher—both of whom are on Crain’s New York Business’s most recent list of the city’s fifty most powerful women—posed for celebratory photos, clad in matching hard hats.
The youngest of four children, Raab grew up in a working-class family in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Her father died when she was in elementary school, and her mother supported the family with a job as a teacher’s aide. She attended public schools in the neighborhood before winning a coveted spot at Hunter College High School, which was then all female. “It was sort of controversial,” Raab says, “because if you went down to the Upper East Side to go to this all-girls school, you might become a snob or a man hater.” The first of her siblings to go to college, she applied to Cornell early decision at age sixteen. “I remember my mother saying, ‘Don’t get your hopes up,’” Raab recalls. “It sounds mean, but it wasn’t; it was protective. It was, ‘These things don’t happen to us; how will we even get the money?’ But a week later, I got two fat envelopes.”
On the Hill, Raab was a College Scholar, focusing on European government and intellectual history. She attended on scholarships and worked her way through school, including serving as a short-order cook on North Campus (for which she recalls making green omelets on St. Patrick’s Day). “My favorite job was as a banquet waitress,” she says. “I came back from Cornell with an incredible education—and an ability to fold napkins into many different shapes, like swans and fleurs de lis. I remember coming home and there was my mother, finally having had a child go to college, and she was like, “That’s what you learned?’”
Cornell Alumni Magazine: After a career in government, politics, and corporate law, what made you want to be a college president?
‘I see Hunter College as my client. My job is, “What more can I get for our students? How much can I push the envelope for them?”Jennifer Raab: A lot of it was to create opportunities for those who may not otherwise be able to go to college. We were the second school in the City University system and the ninth in America to accept women in higher education. Thomas Hunter was a rebel who was kicked out of Ireland; he had a radical idea that teachers should be trained and not just return to the classroom after graduating high school. Dr. Hunter had a famous line about access: “The Negro should sit next to the Gentile, should sit next to the Jew.” We didn’t discriminate against anybody but men. In the late Sixties the decision was made to open up all the senior CUNY colleges—there would basically be no standards for admission—but after a while it wasn’t working; if you were a strong student you would often choose other options. We weren’t able to recruit all the faculty that we wanted, the facilities were declining, the state was disinvesting, and alumni were not as proud of the institution. That’s when I really wanted to come here, because I felt I could bring my management and leadership skills and the connections I had made to convince people to support this mission. I was clear that it was controversial for me to become a college president, not coming from this world. But in my mind, just having a doctorate didn’t make you more qualified to do this job.
CAM: Is your time in the trenches of politics and corporate law serving you well?
JR: Absolutely. I see Hunter College as my client. My job is, “What more can I get for our students? How much can I push the envelope for them?” My job is to try to get everybody I can find, compel, or argue to do something for our students—whether that’s supporting a scholarship, providing an internship, giving a career talk, or selling us a floor of their research building.
CAM: What are the biggest challenges that Hunter is facing—issues that may be common to higher education nationwide?
JR: People have a misperception that everyone goes to college for four years and you finish where you start. That’s true in most private colleges, where 98 percent of students finish in four years. But the average in America is that only about 60 percent of high school graduates go to college and only about 60 percent of them will finish in six years, so we look at a six-year graduation rate. We want to make sure that our students stay in school and that they finish. And when you’re dealing with students who for the most part don’t live on campus, their lives are complex. They’re commuting, they’re almost all working, many have family responsibilities. So they go home and a parent may say, “You have to watch your little brother” when they planned to work on a research paper, or they thought they were going to be able to use the computer and another sibling needs it. So there are many challenges. I remember coming home from Cornell and my mother asking me, “What did you learn?” It was interesting to explain to someone who didn’t have a college education that it’s actually not a specific thing you learn; it’s that you’re learning to learn and to think critically, which then changes you completely as a person.
CAM: You had the classic campus experience, but your students attend a commuter school in the heart of the city. What do you see as the advantages of a Hunter-style education?
JR: There’s no separation between your college life and life afterward. I was here on 9/11, and I walked the halls and broke up some very tense conversations between different interest groups who had different visions of what had happened. I’ve heard from so many students that the diversity here is unparalleled. We have people from 150 countries; we have more than a hundred languages spoken; we have students who come back to school and graduate at age seventy-five. Having said that, it’s still a challenge to create community. In a residential college there’s a dorm, a quad, hang-out space, so we’ve been trying to do that. It’s a challenge to create those community spaces—but we have that incredible diversity and then you get New York as a laboratory. You might not have a quad, but you can hop on the subway at that station that says “Hunter College” in the mosaic and you’re Off-Broadway, or you can walk over to the Met, the Whitney, or MOMA. If you’re interested in health research you can walk over to Weill Cornell or Rockefeller; if you’re interested in politics you can go to our Roosevelt House, the China Institute, the U.N., or the Council on Foreign Relations. You could make the argument that you have the best of everything by having this campus that’s New York City.
CAM: The world of New York politics is legendary. What was it like to work on a mayoral campaign?
JR: You have so many decisions to make, and there are so many different interests and racial, religious, and ethnic groups; you really have to have more than, “How would you keep the streets clean?” Candidates could go to a forum and have thirty questions on completely different subjects thrown at them, each extremely important to the person asking—whether it’s about schools, the local health clinic, or traffic patterns. It can be small and local, but then there are big conflicts. Any problem that any municipality has, New York will have. But I don’t know if there’s another city in the world that has its own foreign policy; our mayor is asked about Israel and Ireland, and you have to have a position. It’s fascinating, it’s fast-moving, and we have so much media here. Where else do you have two tabloids with front pages that can say anything, and then everybody’s holding them up on the subway?
CAM: Can you share a war story?
JR: Back in 1989 a lot of things that are now taken for granted, like gay rights, were still issues. There was a big Court of Appeals case about whether gay partners could inherit the leases if they lost their lovers—and that was during the terrible AIDS epidemic. The campaign was formulating Giuliani’s position on gay rights, and I said to him, “Look, it’s a housing issue; it’s a family issue. It makes sense to support keeping a family together.” So one day he was doing the kind of things that candidates do—march in a Puerto Rican Day parade and then play stickball. Except someone asked him about the case, and whatever came out, or whatever people heard, didn’t sound the way we thought it was going to. And before we knew it the front page of one of the tabloids had a photo of him playing stickball with the headline, “Rudy Sticks It to Gays.” That’s New York City. It’s never a dull day.