New Queens CUNY presidents discuss college in the time of COVID-19

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Photo via YouTube/Schneps Media

The newly appointed presidents of four CUNY schools in Queens sat down with Schneps Media last week to discuss their backgrounds and the challenges their respective schools face in the coming months — and potentially years — as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

With a spring semester to learn from and a summer of planning under their belt, the presidents see the challenge as a chance to move the CUNY system into the future and to provide opportunities to students they may have not otherwise been able to provide.

But prior to being appointed as college presidents, Dr. Berenecea Johnson Eanes, the president of York College; Dr. Christine Mangino, the president-designate of Queensborough Community College; Frank Wu, the president of Queens College; and Kenneth Adams, the president-designate of LaGuardia Community College, each had interesting careers that led them to their current roles in university leadership.

For Dr. Johnson Eanes, becoming the president of a college had always been a something she hoped to do. Years ago, she told a friend that she would one day hold the leadership role.

“This has been a dream of mine for a very long time, for these kinds of students, at this kind of institution,” Johnson Eanes said.

The York College president has spent the past 25 years working in higher education, most recently serving as the vice president of student affairs at Cal State Fullerton.

While Johnson Eanes seemed to be on the path towards a college president role, her new colleague, Wu, said he never saw himself in his new role.

“In some ways, I’m an improbable college president,” Wu said. “It’s not something I ever thought I’d ever do.”

The Queens College president began his career as a lawyer but soon decided he was more passionate about teaching and learning. He became a professor at Howard University, then joined the board of trustees at Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard of hearing. He also served as the dean of the law school at Wayne State and the chancellor of the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

But when the opportunity to serve as Queens College’s president came along, Wu knew what to do.

“I didn’t want to be a college president,” Wu said. “I wanted to be the college president of Queens College, because of the diversity and the mission.”

Like Johnson Eanes and Wu, Dr. Mangino had long had a passion for education.

Originally getting a degree in hotel management, Mangino went back to school to earn a degree in elementary education and English. From there, the soon-to-be president of Queensborough Community College spent 16 years with Hostos Community College, serving in various roles, including as the vice president of academic affairs.

In her new role, Mangino sees an institution that carries on her educational beliefs.

“Queensborough excited me because they have the same passion for academics,” Mangino said. “We’re going to do some really exciting things together.”

Kenneth Adams, who will soon begin to serve as LaGuardia Community College’s president, has spent a majority of his career focused on economic development, which isn’t the “traditional background” of a college president.

However, when serving as the commissioner of the New York State Department of Economic Development, Adams worked closely with the presidents of CUNY and SUNY schools. He saw that state and city schools were serving an incredibly valuable economic role for both its students and its community.

“I had this obsession with CUNY as a real driver of economic mobility and opportunity,” Adams said.

Adams left the Cuomo administration to work as the dean of workforce and economic development at Bronx Community College, where he’ll continue to work until taking a seat at the top of LaGuardia Community College in August.

But becoming the leader of a major institution during the COVID-19 crisis will have its challenges.

“I don’t think anyone planned it quite this way,” Adams said.

The COVID-19 transition

For all four presidents, the focus of the fall will be providing a quality education and a vibrant student life through an online platform.

The vast majority of classes will be exclusively online at CUNY colleges, with handful of courses taught in a hybrid format, with most instruction online and some instruction taught in person.

LaGuardia Community College’s nursing program is one of its largest academic programs. Students enrolled in the program require access to equipment that can only be utilized in person.

“We have occupational training programs where we do as much as we can online, but at the end of the day, some of the instruction has to be in-person because of equipment and access to labs,” Adams said.

But for all four presidents, the challenges of running a school online stretches beyond instruction.

“The spring semester was really about survival, but now we need to make sure that students have a connection to the college, the faculty, and are able to create friendships with other students,” Mangino said.

At Queens College, Wu and his team found a way to replicate the fanfare of the first day of school by purchasing virtual confetti for 99 cents — a cheaper alternative to the confetti gun the school typically uses to welcome its students.

Johnson Eanes said her school will focus on the trauma her students and faculty face.

“First and foremost, we have to acknowledge the amount of grief and trauma,” she said.

Despite the hardships of being forced to change the way in which college instruction is taught, Wu, Adams, Mangino and Johnson Eanes see the challenge as a great opportunity.

“There is nowhere but forward. We can’t go back,” Johnson Eanes said. “I think we have a fantastic opportunity at York and we’re ready.”