Len Rodberg May 3, 2016
Let me start with a bit of autobiography which will, I think, make clear who I am and how I feel about this transition.
I came of age, in a sense, in 1945 when the atomic bomb exploded. Nuclear physics was king of the sciences, and I went on to get a PhD in theoretical physics a dozen years later from MIT. But within a short time thereafter, I was in Cincinnati, visiting the Hebrew Union College, the rabbinical college of liberal or Reform Judaism. I had grown up, and taken very seriously, the Jewish tradition built around the social justice teachings of the Prophets. Doing and teaching physics didn’t seem like enough; perhaps I might pursue “social action” as a rabbi. However, I quickly decided that a rabbinical life was not for me. I didn’t feel I had the calling for what I referred to as the “pastoral function.”
So my first job in academia, in 1959, was in the Physics Department at the University of Maryland. But within a year and a half, I had taken leave to join the Kennedy Administration and work as a nuclear scientist on arms control and disarmament – and I never really went back. For the next twenty years, I developed policy proposals, wrote, lectured, taught, organized conferences, drafted legislators’ speeches on a variety of public issues — nuclear arms control, the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, health care, energy conservation. As one example that’s still relevant, in the late 70s I wrote a zero-fossil-fuel energy plan for New York City that was published in the Village Voice, and I worked with community organizations in New York City to make buildings in their neighborhoods more energy-efficient.
So in the spring of 1981, I showed up at the doorsteps of the Urban Studies Department at Queens College, as a refugee from the Reagan Administration. I was actually at that point on unemployment, having lost my Department of Energy funding when Reagan took over. I was invited here by Barry Commoner to undertake energy research in his Center, which he had moved here from St. Louis two years earlier, and I was offered a tenure-track position in a department of my and their choosing. The Urban Studies Department was, at that point, most compatible with my public policy interests. Bill Muraskin was Chair at that point, and I was grateful that he and the rest of the department were willing to take me, even though a PhD in theoretical physics certainly stretched the boundaries of even such a highly interdisciplinary department as this one.
Four years later, when I came up for tenure, we discovered that Barry Commoner didn’t tolerate anyone other than himself at his Center having the stability of tenure, so I was denied tenure, even though the Department, and its Chair, Matt Edel, very strongly supported me. Eventually, through the Union grievance process and the help of John Seley and others, I won my line back. Eight years later, in 1994, I was elected Chair of the Department. And, to close this circle, two years ago I oversaw the hiring of Sherry Baron, whose principal role is to conduct research in what is now the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment, as a faculty member in our department.
Barely a year after I took over as Chair, we were threatened with extinction. Allen Sessoms was President, CUNY was undergoing a financial crisis, and retrenchment was threatened. All of us mobilized our friends in political office, and the threat abated. In fact, we gained, because the Health Education Program on campus was closed down and we were able to bring Marcia Bayne Smith from that program into the Department.
Given the background that I’ve described, you can understand how pleased I am that our Department has retained the dedication to social justice that was inherent in its founding in 1971. Urban Studies was a new field created in the 1960s in the midst of urban crisis. It was designed to address the problems of our cities and produce students who could help solve them and improve life in our cities. Unlike many other parts of academia, we’re a department with a mission to address real world problems by empowering our students to become urban activists.
Our stance is signaled by the course that has introduced our program since its founding. Where other departments will call it simply Introduction to Urban Studies, we call it Urban Poverty and Affluence. While our national politics has moved far rightward, we have remained steadfast in preparing our students, not only to contribute to the life of the city, but to contribute from the perspective that it should be a Just City where everyone can find their rightful place.
Throughout our history, our department has welcomed older students who are working in the city and face many challenges in their lives – limited incomes, heavy family and work responsibilities. It has been rewarding to be able to give them the support they need as they move through our program toward a fulfilling career.
I feel good about what has happened during my 22 years as chair:
We have hired a very strong group of talented, socially-engaged faculty who are carrying on the traditions of our department. We have periodically revised and upgraded our undergraduate and graduate curricula under the energetic and insightful guidance of Jeff Maskovsky, who, I believe most of your know, will be following me as Chair of the Department.
We established successful undergraduate and graduate programs at the Extension Center in midtown Manhattan and ran them for nearly twenty years, in the last period under the inspired direction of Dana Davis, who created a number of innovations tailored to the needs of the Center’s working students. That Center’s program has now been taken over and is being continued by the Murphy Institute, and Dana’s innovations have been incorporated into our own program here on campus.
We helped create the interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Program about fifteen years ago. It languished for awhile, but today it’s a joint program between our department and the School of Earth and Environmental Science and is thriving under the leadership in our department of Melissa Checker. And we’ve helped sustain and support the Labor Studies Program, the Journalism Program, and NYPIRG to provide socially-valuable learning experiences for our students.
I have attempted as Chair to provide an environment where our faculty can pursue their research and policy passions with the full support of the department. And the College has allowed that as well, so that I and others have been able to pursue the public education work around policy issues we feel passionate about – in my case, around health care reform, climate change, and the Infoshare online database I created to provide data on the population and health of the communities of this city.
We’ve also succeeded in raising money, initially for the graduate program from the widow of Herbert Bienstock, a late member of our department, and more recently from the Hagedorn Fund for our undergraduate program. so the department will continue to have the resources to do creative and useful things that would otherwise not be available to our students.
Perhaps because of this supportive environment, none of our faculty has left our department for other, more lucrative teaching and working environments. We have lost faculty only through mortality and through, until now, one retirement, that of Ron Lawson. We did, unfortunately, lose several colleagues along the way including, most recently, our much loved colleague, Marcia Bayne Smith, the very model of the kind of faculty member our department depends on – an inspiring teacher, an activist intimately connected to diverse communities of this City, and a contributor of policy ideas and analyses to advance progressive values in the City.
So I feel a very fortunate man. I’ve had the opportunity, with support from my colleagues and everyone I work with, to do good, socially useful work, both here on campus and in the broader community. I expect to continue working on the issues I care about, and to keep in touch with my colleagues here as well. And I want to thank all of you for coming to this affair.
Photo Credit: Aisha Hassan.