Physics at CUNY I: Mighty Monkeys Climbing Ropes

I could have entitled this post “Research at CUNY”, but I prefer to speak for my own field.

I am thankful to have a long-term academic job, with tenure. I am ecstatic that I live in New York City (if only I could arrange for a geologic event to make some real mountains here without hurting anyone. I would need a promotion of some kind). I appreciate that I have a reasonably big office (which I manage to clutter, despite its size). I am glad that I like many of the students I know (or have known).

What I’m not glad about is the research environment. Before any released time, the CUNY contract mandates 21 hours of teaching per year. This is quite reasonable for an institution where faculty research is a sideline, but is too heavy a burden for those, like me, for whom it is a passion. That descends to 18 hours, for those who publish (still 9 contact hours per week, per semester). Committee work helps further. Advising each Ph.D. student results in a minuscule further reduction of 0.6 hours per semester. External grants result in no teaching reduction at all.

Don’t pity me. I am productive, despite the yoke. If you look at the last post, I even display a certain amount of pride in my work. I don’t write a lot of papers, but I think that what I do write is significant. The problem is that, like the proverbial monkey climbing the rope slung over the pulley, I have to drive myself very fast to ascend.

To those who say “your job is to teach, not do research,” I beg to differ. I actually love to teach (I really enjoyed my great students in relativity and quantum mechanics last semester). Furthermore, I find that my teaching has had a positive impact on my research. But as a scholar, I have the responsibility to give the community something new to teach in fifty years. If there is no research, scholarship recedes into a medieval state, in which we are monks and nuns, copying the same illuminated texts over and over and over and over and over…

CUNY can’t make up its mind as to whether it should be a real university or a teaching-only institution. It seems that it wants to be both, which is not feasible.

I won’t point fingers at particular administrators (or faculty) at CUNY Central or Baruch College (not in this post, anyway). Is that because I am a nice guy and don’t want to name names? Or is it because I am a chicken and frightened of these folks? Nope – it’s because everything is negotiated in secret first, then rubber-stamped. By keeping the decision-making in the dark, we never know who to give credit to or who to blame.

Other people at public universities will probably agree with what I say. Undoubtably the problems begin with government more than university administrations. The evolution of federal and state tax structure has stretched the budgets of public universities incredibly thin. They respond by making life harder for faculty, like us, or charging so much tuition that they are rapidly becoming private schools. The latter phenomenon is helping to deprive those students without upper-class backgrounds of a university education.

Since I came to Baruch, nearly a quarter of a century ago, we have grown quite a bit (though nowhere near enough). Two of our faculty came as RIKEN Fellows, which is a big deal (we get first-rate faculty essentially for free, for the first five years). Look at our publication record, if you disagree. I’ve seen quality growth in other departments around CUNY. CCNY, the boot-camp of science, has always had a great department, but the New York City College of Technology, Lehman College, The College of Staten Island have all become very good places (Hunter, Queens and Brooklyn will complain. Yes, those are good too).

Our physics is mighty. It sure would be nice to see some appreciation around here.


6 thoughts on “Physics at CUNY I: Mighty Monkeys Climbing Ropes

  1. Hey Peter,

    I believe I almost got arrested by the UCLA police in your car once. That while I was finishing my PhD in math at the CUNY Graduate Center. As faculty at a public university, in the same boat as CUNY, I know where your coming from. My school was never a research school, it was a teacher’s college originally, but as the job market tanked and they got better and better people, it gradually morphed into a place where people did real work, without anyone noticing at first. Now it’s expected. It’s tough, but I can’t see that it’s going away, at least not in fields like physics or math where they have they’re choice of great people for any academic job. When we have a math job, we get at least 300 applicants, all way over qualified. We had Thurston’s last student begging us for a job a couple of years ago. Thing is, complaining will get you nothing, since you’re lucky to just have a job, and tenure. Try talking to an adjunct. Or even me – my load out of grad school was 4 – 4, and if I wanted tenure I needed publications. Now at least it’s 3 – 3, since we rearranged the credits. Of course, it’s kind of funny to outsiders when I complain, since I also explain that if I hadn’t gotten an academic job, I would have ended up working at an investment bank, and I would be both rich and retired by now 🙂


  2. Hi Jeffrey,

    Now that I spend most of my time in Manhattanhenge, I get around mostly by walking, occasionally taking subway. I don’t miss driving and polluting, though I do feel a bit nostalgic for that Ford Galaxy 500 with its souped-up engine, which I bought for $500 in Blacksburg, Virginia.

    This is about fairness within each university system, not comparing all university systems. I agree with everything you say, especially about adjuncts past grad school. I am not complaining that I will never get to teach as little as three hours a week. I can live with more teaching than people at richer institutions get. I am complaining about the lack of fairness within one university system (mine).

    What I meant my post to be about is that there is little done to encourage or recognize faculty achievement. By “recognize”, I mean that someone who publishes in good journals, gets occasional funding, etc., gets more released time than someone who writes a rare paper in a phony-baloney journal. Advising one Ph.D. student is far more time-consuming than teaching a large survey course, but the university doesn’t see it this way. This has been a real problem at CUNY (though I appreciate that we may not be unique). Baruch has reformed in some respects, now tying released time directly to publications (in the past, the connection was inconsistent), but there is no attempt to evaluate faculty beyond “metrics”.


    • Peter

      Sorry for any misunderstanding, and I now know exactly where you are coming from. Something along the same lines has happened where I am, in that for a long time no one had clue what “good” research was, and what supervision (in my case only at the Master’s level) involves. When I was coming up for tenure, one of my papers was in Mathematische Annalen, and another in Transactions of the AMS, and only one person in my department had any idea just how hard it was to get a paper in journals like that. It took some work to make sure the higher ups understood the difference between where I was publishing and where everyone else (at that time) was publishing. Now things are totally different, a bunch of people in my department publish in places like that all the time. The last person we hired got his PhD at Cornell and had a postdoc at U of R. The Dean is actually OK at understanding who’s doing real stuffing and trying to help, not that there’s much they can do.

      If you really want to appreciate teaching, try administration. I’ve been chair for 5 1/2 years, and so barely teach – OMG do I miss it.

      As for the car, it was very interesting. I will never forget Peter W as he tried to explain how he ended up in a car with Georgia (it was Georgia, wasn’t it?) plates, with a pursuit engine, running a stop sign at 2AM on the UCLA campus, with all three people in the car having pony tails (and all three men). I was sitting in the back, trying not to laugh, until I noticed that the cop Peter was talking to had their gun out, and then the cop standing behind the car said very loudly “keep your hands where we can see them.” No more laughing. It took some work to convince them we were there for the big differential geometry conference. They didn’t even bother to give us a ticket. We were all white – serious life lesson.


      • Hi Jeff,

        I heard the story from the other two who were in the car with you. I had similar trouble in LA, by merely walking (while visiting a rich neighborhood. The cops clearly thought of themselves as private security guards).

        Georgia? Yes, drove from Tbilisi to the Chukchi Sea and crossed the Bering Strait… Sorry to kid. The car had Virginia plates.


  3. This book,–Their/dp/0226327671/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1424049616&sr=1-3&keywords=in+their+stars+physics
    though dated somewhat does an interesting job of describing (based on 60 interviews with physicists) the tensions felt by physicists throughout their careers at elite research universities, large state universities, and teaching colleges. Two findings: Research ambition outside research universities leads to some level of frustration and conflict, and the folks in the teaching colleges were not made happier by the clear mission of their institutions.


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