A Conversation with Interim President James L. Muyskens

James L. Muyskens James L. Muyskens

James L. Muyskens, the new interim president of The Graduate Center, has a long history at CUNY as both a professor of philosophy and an administrator. He has also served as an administrator at the University of Kansas and the University System of Georgia.

A few days before moving into the president’s office here, we caught up with him to find out what he thinks about the state of higher education, the role of philosophy, and the coming year at The Graduate Center. A New Yorker for many years, Muyskens (pronounced “MY-skins”) moved out of the city a few years ago, so we started by asking …

GC: How is it to be back in New York?

Muyskens: Well, it feels terrific. We have lived in so many different places, lived in idyllic university towns, lived in New York of course before, traveled to lots of different cities. Nothing compares to New York in terms of its vitality, its dynamism, so it's invigorating to be back. I kind of missed it.

GC: You've taught here and at Hunter College, served as provost of Hunter, and president of Queens College. What interested you in taking on the interim presidency of The Graduate Center?

Muyskens: I've invested a lot in The City University of New York. I love this place. I love its mission. And when I started out my career right after graduate school, I was invited to be on the faculty here at The Graduate Center, and that meant a lot to me to be able to teach some graduate courses and do some research related to my fields, and be at Hunter. That's something I really hope The Graduate Center and CUNY can continue to do. When I look at what's best for this university, we need a very strong research component, and the strongest way or the most effective way to have that is to have a very strong graduate center, especially now that the ASRC is aligned with us.

GC: What's first on your to-do list besides unpacking?

Muyskens: I think the really important thing for me as interim president is to maintain The Graduate Center’s momentum. Just look at all the great things — public programming, the research, the scholarship, the recent inequality workshop — that take place here. I want to make sure that that work continues and thrives while we search for another president who can take the institution to the next level.

GC: Your career has been in higher education. What do you see as the challenges to public higher education now and specifically to graduate education?

Muyskens: I grew up in Minnesota, and this will seem very odd in today's climate, but at that time the political parties in Minnesota vied to see who could support more vigorously the University of Minnesota and public education. We have moved so far from that in recent years where the first unfortunate thing has been to question, do we move more and more to see higher education as a private good as opposed to a public good? And if it's a private good, then it seems to make sense to say we’ll let the student pay for it. And of course, across the country, that's created huge problems in terms of student debt and goodwill toward the higher education institutions. We, across the country, including in New York in recent years, continue to have cut after cut. It makes it more and more difficult to carry out our mission, which is to provide excellent education to students at an affordable cost.

But, if we step back, U.S. higher education has been the envy of the world, and that encompasses all the things we do, including graduate work. And if we’re going to continue to be the world leader in higher education, we have to have strong graduate education. We live in a knowledge society. The advances in knowledge that graduate education and research provide are what will keep the U.S. in the lead and will be an essential means for enhancing the quality of life for future generations.

GC: You're a philosophy professor and have written about morality in medicine and the importance of hope. The Graduate Center highlights graduate education for the public good. Do the concepts of morality and hope inform how you see your work and the role of public higher education?

Muyskens: If you look at the big issues of the day — increasing inequality or our legacy of slavery and oppression —those are ethical issues, and those are issues that higher education needs to take on. We need to be able to provide answers to the public about how to study and address these issues. So, I see ethics as core to what we're doing.

As a philosopher, I put a huge premium on rationality. Let's be reasonable. Come reason together. Can’t we resolve our differences sitting around a table rather than taking up arms? The whole enlightenment idea. That's my core value, what motivates me. But in real life, you can't just wait on all the evidence before you decide, or you'll miss the train and you'll go nowhere. So, I was very interested in, if you have a real deep commitment to rationality, how should you proceed when you have to go beyond the evidence and you simply can't wait. You take, as it's often called, the leap of faith.

The concept of hope interests me because it provides a way to move beyond evidence responsibly. The question I have explored — Immanuel Kant’s question — is, “For what have we a right to hope?” When you hope for something, there’s a moral dimension to it. If someone said to you, “I hope all my enemies are slain,” you’d respond that that is something one ought not to hope for. It is not something one has a right to hope for. What one has a right to hope for is constrained by moral principle. Hope, I contend, provides a way for rational people to move forward in those situations when reason alone cannot provide the answer.

GC: Do you plan to teach again?

Muyskens: No. My administrative work has required me to do all sorts of other things than the scholarship that I would think one should have in order to teach here. And I really think to teach at The Graduate Center you've got to be at the top of your game. You've got to be a truly creative scholar or researcher, and I'm not at this point in my life. A few years ago when I wanted to return to the classroom, I opted to teach freshmen. I find it exhilarating to work with students who are unfamiliar with philosophy and have their doubts that it could be of any value to them. The challenge is to get them to understand the value of thinking clearly, writing effectively, and speaking persuasively. When the challenge is met, the reward is great: Students are inspired to live an examined life and to continue to study to gain the wherewithal to thrive in today’s “post-truth” world.

Submitted on: JUL 1, 2019

Category: General GC News