March 2016 Faculty Spotlight
March Faculty Spotlight with Professor, Stan Altman
What sustains a meaningful academic career 50+ years in? Professor (and previously, Dean and Interim President) Stan Altman walks us through his varied experiences at Baruch College over the years, what students have taught him, and why he hasn’t retired.
You’ve occupied the roles of Dean and Interim President, and you’re currently a professor here at Baruch College. How has this array of unique vantage points influenced the way you teach at a hands-on level? And the way you view public management and higher education administration in a more high-level sense?
My experience as a Dean and interim President at Baruch and Deputy to the President at SUNY Stony Brook has given me unique insights into how the academic world operates. It is not unusual to find administrative offices in silos, that is, they often do not communicate with one another. What is often lacking is a “student-centric” view, recognizing students as their clients and putting student needs ahead of bureaucratic procedures. This is no different from the environment students will find in other large organizations, whether government or nonprofit organizations. Students have to learn how to navigate their way through bureaucratic mazes.
I often create role-playing situations to help students see issues from other people’s perspective as well as learn how to work as members of a team. I have come to believe that experiential learning creates opportunities for student to “think outside the box”, learn team building and communication skills and develop the ability to work in unstructured environments. This is the direction my teaching is moving. One example was the CUNY-IBM Watson Competition I organized during the fall 2014 semester, providing students from across CUNY an opportunity to image and propose ways IBM Watson cognitive computing could be used to improve higher education or NYC government.
Off the top of your head, what is one of the most meaningful things a student has taught you during your tenure here?
Having taught at Princeton University and SUNY Stony Brook from 1968 – 1999 when I joined Baruch College most of my students were from middle class families. Baruch students face an entirely different set of challenges from the students I was used to teaching. I am continuously amazed at the complexity of their lives – having to work, take care of family, go to school and often have other responsibilities as well. One of the reasons I began experimenting with online education was in recognition of the challenges our students face and the need to create more flexible learning environments.
One case in point was a young Chinese student who seemed quite engaged in Baruch clubs but had a mediocre record. After talking with her I discovered her father died of cancer, her mother had cancer but did not speak English so she became her mother’s translator at meetings with healthcare providers and social service agencies. She felt like a failure. I talked with her about the heroic job she was doing and the important service she was providing another person, even if it was her mother. I nominated her for a national service award that she won. It changed how she saw herself and it changed how I saw my students. I learned empathy as a result of this experience.
Another example was a student in my quantitative methods course who was struggling. The class had a case assignment dealing with child abuse and how to address the growing problem in America. One recommendation has always been to deliver a public service announcement but no one ever prepared one – until this student was so interested in the problem that she prepared a 2-minute video with original material and deep knowledge of the subject. She needed other venues to show her abilities beyond simply writing a paper or preparing a graph using Excel.
You began your academic career nearly 50 years ago and have been a Baruch College staple for the last 16. You could have retired at this point but you haven’t. What drives you?
I haven’t retired because I love teaching. I find working with young people stimulating and a way to stay current with generational changes in society. I also strongly believe that the way you influence society is through education. We are responsible for helping shape their values and culture. If we want a more just and socially minded society we need to find ways to foster these values in our students.
This is one reason I helped to start the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance Program at Baruch, because it creates opportunities for students to learn about the importance of service by doing, and at the same time to prepare for careers in the nonprofit sector. I also think it is our responsibility to help students answer two important questions, “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose in life?” At a minimum it is important to make them aware that these are questions they need to consider.
In summary, what drives me is the desire to prepare today’s students to lead tomorrow’s society with empathy and concern for others – not simply for themselves. It is addressing the Tragedy of the Commons paradigm, the interest of the individual versus the interests of the community.