Jay Hershenson – ‘Mr. CUNY’ Devotes Heart & Soul to NYC’s College Students - The Jewish Voice
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Jay Hershenson – ‘Mr. CUNY’ Devotes Heart & Soul to NYC’s College Students

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CUNY Senior Vice Chancellor  Jay HershensonIf there is anyone within the senior administration of the City University of New York who deserves the title of “Mr. CUNY,” it would most definitely be Jay Hershenson, the university system’s Senior Vice Chancellor for University Relations and Secretary of the Board of Trustees. A passionately devoted vice chancellor at CUNY for nearly three decades, Hershenson’s myriad accomplishments reflect his concern for both the ongoing vitality of CUNY’s twenty-four educational institutions overall as well as the educational excellence of each student.

Jay Hershenson seemed destined to become part and parcel of the City University of New York from his time as a young adult. Breaking the family mold by becoming the first member of his family to attend college, the ambitious young man first went to Queensborough Community College, and then moved on to Queens College, where he majored in Communication Arts and Sciences and University Administration. Hershenson was clearly aiming for higher ground, as evidenced by his subsequent earning of an M.A. in Urban Studies from Queens College.

The future ‘Mr. CUNY’ wasted no time in making his decision to transition from student to staff member at the prestigious university system, as he became the first elected student trustee to CUNY’s Board of Trustees in 1974. The following year, he was re-elected to the position of Chairperson of the University Student Senate of CUNY. Hershenson solidified his professional relationship with the City University of New York by serving as a part-time faculty member at both Hunter and Queens Colleges, as well as performing doctoral work at Teachers College.

Hershenson’s unflagging drive and deep-seated passion for New York’s world of higher education compelled him to “graduate” to CUNY’s administrative realm. Since the mid-1970’s, he has held a variety of senior-level administrative positions – encompassing roles as a publicist, a government liaison and an activist in promoting academic and community relations – for six CUNY Chancellors and with over 100 CUNY trustees.

In his many high-profile roles at the City University of New York – which is the leading public urban university system in the nation – Jay Hershenson has mastered an impressive range of vital activities on behalf of the system. Serving as Vice Chancellor of CUNY since 1984, and currently entrusted with the position of Senior Vice Chancellor and Board Secretary, Hershenson has made a strong and long-lasting impact through his work on the development and implementation of CUNY’s external relations programs. These include governmental, media and community relations, marketing, communications and CUNY-TV, as well as the administration of the Board of Trustees’ agenda, meetings and records.

Hershenson is keenly aware of the struggles so many CUNY students go through in their attempts to transcend such personal issues as living in New York City as a new immigrant and holding down a job to make ends meet while they pursue their dream of a higher education. One of his “signature programs” for the system – “Citizenship Now” – addresses the first of those two areas. With the help of Baruch College Professor Allan Wernick, “Citizenship Now” offers professional advice regarding their status in the United States to immigrant students through a “staff” of approximately 450 volunteers from law schools, law associations and local media, who speak over 50 languages. Since its inception a decade ago, the program has fielded over 100,000 calls through an annual call-in. “The phones never stopped,” Hershenson says proudly. “This is CUNY at its best, a large urban university performing public service as part of its mission.”

Expounding on “Citizenship Now” and its wider import, Hershenson notes that CUNY serves students from 205 different countries. “This program was created to help immigrant students navigate the American immigration system,” he tells the Jewish Voice in an exclusive interview. “We offer them valuable assistance as they try to navigate the maze of regulations and obtain their citizenship papers. Although originally established just for our students, the program ended up becoming so popular that people from the general community began using it too.” Pointing out that there are “Citizenship Now” offices on campuses across the City University of New York system, Hershenson says it is the largest such program in the United States.

Tackling the issue of students who have to simultaneously work to make a living, CUNY’s Senior Vice Chancellor takes charge of the program for the annual Big Apple Jobs Fair at the Javits Center. In April, a record number of employers and agencies were in place at the fair to try and meet the future employment needs of CUNY’s diverse student body. The Jobs Fair featured such workshops as “Challenge,” which focused on the crucial current topic of “leveraging social media in a job search,” and a session – presented by an organization called New York Needs You – that offered insights into how students can convert an internship into a full-time position.

Yet another timely workshop at the Big Apple Jobs Fair took on the hot topic of international careers (“overseas jobs”). “In my days, the person next to you in class was not likely to be from China or India,” Hershenson notes wryly. “Now, with the smartest and most diverse students in the country, CUNY does its utmost to provide resources that will enable its graduates to compete in the competitive job market both here and abroad.”

Hershenson spoke to the Jewish Voice with pride about CUNY’s prestigious Macaulay Honors College, which caters to students with a grade average of at least 93 and high SAT scores. “The Honors College is such a desirable program,” he enthuses, “that it receives 5,000 applications annually for 400 student slots. And its success is undeniable – there are now more high academic achievers winning awards at CUNY than ever before.” While he supports the program, the Senior Vice Chancellor gives the primary credit for its creation and exemplary execution to CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein.

Touching on a key topic of current interest, Hershenson points with pride to CUNY’s tuition costs, which he says are quite modest in comparison to other American university systems. “In accordance with state law, we only raise our tuition annually by $300,” he notes. “Our present yearly tuition is $5,430 – that’s a bargain compared to states like New Jersey. We have proven that a student can get a world-class education at affordable levels – without going into debt.” The Senior Vice Chancellor adds that CUNY does its utmost to help students gain access to financial aid.

With the City University of New York’s current efforts to expand its focus on scientific studies, Hershenson has combined his media savvy – he has previously overseen productions by CUNY’s television station – with his embrace of CUNY’s mission by taking on the role of Executive Producer of the CUNY-TV series, “Science & U!,” which spotlights the innovative classroom activities of science educators across the United States. In just one example of CUNY’s commitment to excellence in science education, the Senior Vice Chancellor comments that sixteen of the university system’s students won National Science Foundation Research Fellowships this past year. “No one else in the Northeast exceeded that,” he states definitively.

Beyond science, Hershenson speaks enthusiastically about CUNY’s range of recently initiated endeavors, which include new professional schools in the humanities and social sciences, and the New Community College across from Bryant Park. “Our community college population is over 100,000; we’re bursting at the seams,” he declares. The New Community College is based on a full-time credit model called ASAP, which Chancellor Goldstein established several years ago to improve community college graduation rates. The new model has been dramatically effective, with graduation rates increasing from 25 percent in three years to 60 percent.

Hershenson is deeply attuned to his Jewish heritage, and such sentiment is strongly reflected in his commitment both to the Jewish community and to tikkun olam in general. “I helped the Anti-Defamation League develop a program that takes non-Jewish university students on visits to concentration camps,” he explains, “in conjunction with their college’s Jewish Studies department. I also engage in a lot of voluntary work for the general public as a function of my appreciation for our multi-ethnic student body.”

Perhaps the biggest testament to Hershenson’s devotion to higher education – as well as his fine character – comes from the laudatory comments made about him by his communal peers. “I have worked with Jay Hershenson in my previous capacity at Hillel at NYU, as well as at the Jewish Community Relations Council,” relates Rabbi Robert Kaplan of the JCRC. “Jay is a real friend who has always come through for the Jewish community. In general, he has played an integral part in making CUNY a user-friendly system, especially for Russian immigrant students, and he has helped make Baruch College a true hub of training for a successful business career.” Kaplan asserts that Hershenson is a man who can be trusted to follow through on his promises. “Jay’s word is gold – and that’s extremely rare nowadays.”

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, has had the opportunity to interact with Jay Hershenson over the years, and he speaks glowingly of the Senior Chancellor. “It’s interesting to note,” he muses to the Jewish Voice, “that in Torah discussions, even when we speak of a prominent individual, their actual name is mentioned before their title – we say Moshe Rabbeinu (our teacher) or Yaakov Avinu (our father). I believe this teaches us that a person’s refined essence – the goodness of their heart – takes priority over their title or ‘degree.’ In Jay Hershenson’s case, he really has both – he’s a quality person who has achieved the title of Senior Vice Chancellor.”

According to Rabbi Potasnik, Hershenson deserves special praise for creating an environment on New York’s college campuses that is not visibly hostile to the state of Israel, as opposed to the often-tense situation in this regard on many university campuses across the country. “Jay is very sensitive to this issue,” Rabbi Potasnik insists. “He’s really created a spirit of safety for Jewish students in the CUNY system, where there is no intimidation of students who are openly pro-Israel.” In general, Potasnik calls Hershenson a “proud Jew” who takes his religion seriously.

Lauding the Senior Vice Chancellor for both his personal qualities and professional capabilities, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz calls him “a mentsch extraordinaire, who is the anchor and institutional backbone of the City University of New York. Jay has a gift for quickly grasping complex problems and determining the proper course of action to resolve them.” Markowitz discloses to the Jewish Voice that he has watched Hershenson conduct CUNY-related advocacy in the political realm, and he is duly impressed by the man’s ability to earn the full respect of government leaders across party lines.

Hershenson’s peers in the city’s college system get to work with him on a more regular basis, and their assessment of the Senior Vice Chancellor is equally impressive. “Jay has been incredible with the partnerships he has developed with CUNY’s various colleges,” says Scott Evenbeck, president of the New Community College. “He did so much to connect us with the city and support our endeavor as we were planning our opening.” Evenbeck says that Hershenson has played a critical role in bringing the city’s vision of CUNY to life.

Brooklyn College President Karen L. Gould tells the Jewish Voice that, as an alumnus of the city’s university system himself, the Senior Vice Chancellor is uniquely aware of the needs of its diverse student body, and the programs necessary to spur CUNY’s growth. “Jay Hershenson has been a compelling advocate in support of public education and immigrant rights,” Gould elaborates. “He has also successfully guided the exceptional highlighting of CUNY’s rigorous academic programs, student success, and award-winning research in the media. Most of all, Jay has shown a steadfast dedication to serve the needs of generations of CUNY students in their pursuit of transformative educational opportunities.”

In just a few words, Hunter College President Jennifer Raab makes it clear to the Jewish Voice that the Senior Vice Chancellor holds a special place in New York’s educational firmament. “You only need to say ‘Jay’ and everyone in the city and the state knows who you are talking about,” Raab avows. “Like other one-named icons Prince and Madonna, Jay is a rockstar.” Raab further says that Hershenson understands the importance of CUNY more than anyone, and that no one has done more to make the university system shine in the public eye. “Jay is the ultimate public servant,” Raab concludes.

It would probably take several pages to list in detail the Senior Vice Chancellor’s “extra-curricular” activities on behalf of the greater New York community, but even a brief overview gives us a glimpse into his wholehearted dedication to the betterment of society at large. Hershenson was appointed by Mayor Bloomberg to serve on the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs’ Consumers Council; he is a member of the New York Board of Rabbis Lay Advisory Committee; he previously served as the Executive Director of the Committee for Public Higher Education, and was New York City Regional Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group; he served as Senior Advisor for Communications to the 2010 New York City Charter Revision Commission; he was a member of the United Negro College Fund Scholarship Committee; and he was Unit Director of the United Fund of New York.

In recent years, Hershenson has been given many awards and honors in recognition of his devoted communal service and commitment to positively transforming lives through higher education. To name just a few, these include the Legacy Award by the Hispanic Federation for his steadfast work on behalf of the Latino community; the Distinguished Leader in Education 2012 Award by Education Update; an honor by the New York Immigration Coalition in 2010 at their 6th annual Builders of the New New York awards; the 2009 Bronx Community College Legacy Award for his work on helping to obtain the school’s $100 million North Instructional Building; an honor in 2006 by CUNY’s Asian American/Asian Research Institute for his support of that ethnic community; in 2005, the Queensborough Community College Fund Partners for Progress Alumni Partner of the Year designation; and also that year, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations.

Without question, Jay Hershenson has devoted his entire adult life to advancing the higher education experience – and the ensuing career opportunities – for New York City’s college student population. ‘Mr. CUNY’ has rightly earned his nickname – and will undoubtedly continue his vital public service for many years to come.

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