A voice for two-year schools
In the summer of 2018 LaGuardia Community College (LGCC) President Gail Mellow, considered one of the nation’s most outspoken champions of community colleges, was reported to be among the finalists in CUNY’s chancellor search. At the close of 2018, she stepped into the media spotlight with CUNY’s top administrators to welcome Amazon’s new headquarters to Long Island City, Queens, a stone’s throw from her campus. The choice of the East River waterfront for the tech giant’s next corporate home was considered a major victory for the CUNY administration, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.
THINGS FALL APART
In February of 2019 fate intervened. Amazon – under fire from labor groups unhappy with the company’s anti-worker record and community activists worried about rising housing prices and the public subsidies associated with the deal – pulled out of Long Island City, shocking the political establishment. Mellow would not get the nod for CUNY’s top job – the appointment went to another CUNY president in the borough, Félix V. Matos Rodríguez of Queens College. By the end of the month, Mellow announced her resignation as LaGuardia president, a post she had held since 2000, effective in August. She did not give a reason for her departure and did not disclose what her future plans would be.
It is not clear whether either Amazon’s reversal or her not being selected for the chancellor position played deciding roles in her choice to leave LaGuardia.
Mellow is distinguished as a national advocate for community colleges – author of the pro-community college book Minding the Dream, she received an associate degree from Jamestown Community College before continuing to University at Albany (SUNY), and later earned a PhD from the George Washington University. Her official biography boasts a 2006 MetLife Foundation Community College Excellence Award for Service to Underserved Students as well as a First in the World grant from the US Department of Education in 2014, and a NASPA President’s Award in 2016. When it comes to news stories about the state of community colleges in the United States, Mellow stands out as a go-to source for newspapers, television and radio. CUNY Chancellor Matos Rodríguez called her “an architect and innovator, a builder, a nurturer and a visionary.”
In an interview with National Public Radio after announcing her resignation, she cited LaGuardia’s growth during her tenure, both in size and diversity, and in enabling more students to transfer to four-year institutions. Inside Higher Ed reported that LaGuardia “has grown enrollment by about 40 percent to more than 57,000 students [since 2000]. The number of faculty members also more than doubled to nearly 1,100 full- and part-time instructors, and the percentage of faculty of color climbed from 31 percent to 44 percent.”
PSC members had various responses to her time at the college. The campus’s PSC department representative for libraries, Chris McHale, said Mellow spearheaded a positive expansion of the campus’s library.
“She maintained this vision for the library space that ensured it would be a traditional study space for students and not one of those modern cafés,” he said. “She wanted students to have something that was like an Ivy League library.”
PSC activists also noted that she was a vocal advocate for community colleges and that she succeeded in drawing public attention to LaGuardia’s achievements. She was a vocal booster of Governor Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship, which aims to lessen tuition for SUNY and CUNY full-time students below a certain household income threshold, however, groups like the PSC and a variety of newspapers have shown concerns that the program only serves a tiny portion of the state’s students.
Sigmund Shen, the PSC chapter chair, currently on sabbatical, told Clarion, “At labor management meetings, we expressed our belief that she could use her national profile and respected voice more to speak out for pay parity for adjuncts and for the course-load reduction for full-time faculty and staff. On these issues, and on the issues of corporations and foundations seeking to influence pedagogy, she was more tentative when she could have been more assertive. For example, only years later was she willing to acknowledge that Pathways was an ‘aberration’ but by then it was was too late to support faculty resistance against its top-down conception and implementation.”
Shen, an associate professor of English, continued, “Mellow was always very supportive of our faculty, staff and students in broad generalities, but I would hope that her departure would mean an opportunity for a new president to support the more specific and concrete concerns of faculty, staff and students in a way that is more independent from the Board of Trustees.”
PART OF THE SYSTEM
Like all CUNY presidents, Mellow oversaw a system that, over time, has become more reliant on low-wage, part-time instructors. “We really have limited access to the president, and most of us see her as a public figure,” said Youngmin Seo, an adjunct lecturer in LaGuardia’s social sciences department. “Outside, she’d say, ‘I’m the biggest champion of adjunct faculty,’” Seo said, but when asked if she ever implemented changes that improved conditions for the campus’s part-time instructors, he replied, “I really don’t think so.” Seo, who is also the campus’s PSC liaison for part-timers, added, “She’s a politician.”
Some PSC observers felt that the clash between campus priorities and those of the CUNY administration revealed that Mellow’s first loyalty was to the central administration.
“She implemented CUNY central priorities even when faculty were opposed, such as the Pathways Initiative,” said Lorraine Cohen, the PSC vice president for community colleges and a professor of sociology at LaGuardia. “She was committed to prioritizing raising of retention and graduation rates. At times faculty felt that the educational goals of the college were being sacrificed and that consultation with faculty and respect for [faculty] governance was not enough of a priority.”
Cohen continued, “Her relationship with the union was mixed. There were many grievances based on non-reappointment and promotion issues that were won by the union. President Mellow could be highly combative. At other times she was more amenable to listening and compromise. Overall, I would say that her love of the college and identification with our students is part of her positive legacy.”
Union activists are nervous about the future, in part because many CUNY presidential searches have been shrouded in secrecy.
“Most of us are simply concerned about what will happen next,” said Lara Beaty, the acting PSC chapter chair and an associate professor of psychology. “How can we assure that the union and all the faculty, staff and students have a meaningful part in selecting someone new?”