Dean Feniosky Peña-Mora

It’s been six months since the New York Times reported that most of the SEAS senior faculty wanted Dean Peña-Mora to resign and Professor Goldfarb was appointed Executive Vice Dean of SEAS. According to Spec, not much has changed; most professors still have no confidence in Peña-Mora.

What does the dean think about all this? In the May issue of our parent magazine The Blue & White, on newsstands in the coming weeks, Peter Sterne discusses the faculty’s concerns with Dean Peña-Mora and takes a deeper look at the problems in SEAS.

From the Issue: October Revolution

Only days after the New York Times published a letter from the SEAS faculty to Provost Coatsworth, the Columbia University Marching Band riffed on the issues facing SEAS at Orgo Night. The leaked “letter of no confidence” had all but called on SEAS Dean Feniosky Peña-Mora to resign. To teach the faculty in communication, the Band joked that Peña-Mora should host a television program, “Peña-Mora the Explorer”, in the style of “Dora the Explorer.” According to the Band, “sly fox Vice Dean Goldfarb swiped all Peña-Mora’s professional responsibilities,” a reference to Professor Donald Goldfarb’s appointment as Executive Vice Dean of SEAS a few weeks earlier. Vice Dean Goldfarb was charged with handling the academic issues—faculty concerns, tenure appointments, space allocation, teaching assistant issues, and the like—that had created so much tension between the dean and the faculty.

A few days later, the Engineering Student Council countered the faculty letter with a “statement of confidence” in Dean Peña-Mora’s commitment to undergraduate students. “The Dean has continued his strong support of the undergraduate SEAS student body,” says Nate Levick, SEAS ’12 and the President of the Engineering Student Council at the time the faculty letter was published. And because faculty largely do not talk about their concerns with the dean to undergraduates, students remain ignorant of and apathetic toward these concerns. Asked to sum up student feeling on the faculty’s discontent, Tim Qin, SEAS ’13 and president-elect of ESC, demurs, explaining that the issue is so complex and largely unfamiliar to students that most have no opinion.

In the absence of open debate over these issues, undergraduate SEAS students gravitate toward supporting their ambitious dean, who takes the time to appear at ESC meetings and host office hours to connect with SEAS students uninvolved in campus politics.

While many SEAS students express confidence in their dean, the fact that an overwhelming majority of tenured SEAS faculty (80 percent, according to one professor quoted by the Times) support Peña-Mora’s replacement cannot be ignored. Biomedical Engineering Chair Emeritus Van Mow stresses that “most people still feel the same as when that letter was written late last fall.” What are the faculty’s problems with the dean that compel department heads to resign yet remain so esoteric such that they are nearly invisible to undergraduates? And how does Peña-Mora plan to address them?

“The problems we are dealing with have been festering for two years,” states the second paragraph of the Times letter, which was apparently sent from the SEAS faculty to Provost Coatsworth on October 8, 2011, and leaked to the Times by an anonymous faculty member two months later. “In recruiting and promoting decisions,” it continues, “we have seen a critical mismatch between the Dean’s academic values and our own: candidates with impressive academic records and outstanding recommendations are discounted if their fields do not promise major funding for the school.” In other words, the only departments that have been able to hire new tenure-track faculty members are cash-cows—such as Financial Engineering.

Another means to fetching lump sums of revenue is to increase the number of Master’s students, who pay $1,500 per credit, must take 30 credits, and receive virtually no financial aid. Provost Coatsworth later told Spectator that “tuition revenue that pays for the professors.” But “doubling class sizes [in the Master’s program] when there are not classrooms to hold them” and the fact that “people are sitting on the floor” has upset professors and TAs, who bear the brunt of paper grading and must scramble to find space for more students.

Another concern expressed among faculty is what they view as Peña-Mora’s undue interference in departmental decisions. To an unprecedented degree, he has influenced decisions once reserved for departments. The Spectator has detailed how the dean’s reform of the TA program takes power away from individual department: once departments hired their own TAs, and now all TAs are selected by a “SEAS-wide committee.”

Space allocation has also been a source of stress. Faculty charge that Peña-Mora “repeatedly disavowed both written and oral agreements with individual departments.” In numerous instances it seems Peña-Mora promised specific space to a faculty member from one department, only to offer it to a faculty member from another department. “It is true that there are a number of cases in which Feniosky made a commitment and then found with further study that he couldn’t meet the commitment,” Provost Coatsworth disclosed to the Times.

Finally, there has been some faculty grumbling that Peña-Mora is too distant, constantly off-campus in efforts to raise both funds and the school’s national and international profile. The trend of deans devoting less time to internal academic affairs and more to representing their school to donors extends beyond SEAS. Nonetheless, according to a March 2011 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Feniosky Peña-Mora may be the epitome of the new college dean” who spends as much time off-campus as on-. The article, titled “Off-Campus Is Now the Place to Be For Deans,” recounted how he once brought in $30 million, endowing ten chairs over a single fundraising campaign. Peña-Mora’s dedication to raising funds and prestige for SEAS ought to be celebrated, but many argue that he is less concerned with the school’s internal academic affairs.

So what does the dean himself think of all this? In an interview with The Blue & White, Peña-Mora outlined his understanding of the faculty’s concerns. First of all, the dean acknowledged that he hadn’t realized the severity of space limitations when he first came to Columbia. “I didn’t realize what ‘space crunch’ meant at Columbia. All institutions have issues with space,” he explained. “But […] Columbia has been choking to death.”

What about the broken promises? “The faculty sometimes interpret my words to mean more than what I say.” He continued by saying that, conversely, “I like to speak enthusiastically, but some take it very literally.” In other words, a conversation that he has with a certain faculty member about space could be taken by that faculty member as an implicit promise of space, even if that is not his intention. Whether this actually happened is not possible to verify, but Peña-Mora seemed conscious of the sort of habitual communication issues addressed in the Times letter.

And the off-campus excursions? “I do need to travel a lot, to fundraise, and to raise the profile of the school,” he admitted. China is about as far away from the school as one can possibly go, but Dean Peña-Mora says that because he stays in touch even at odd hours, “I’m never far away from the school.”

The biggest issue, though, may be communicating with different departments. “I find it can be challenging when I talk with department chairs because they have their own interests,” he acknowledged. He further illustrated the issue with an analogy: “The departments are like states, and states have their interests. But the federal government has to do what’s best for the country as a whole. I need to make decisions that are best for SEAS as a whole.”

The dean and the faculty of SEAS seem to have two fundamentally different views of the school, resulting in “a now deeply rooted lack of trust.” To amend these issues, Professor Donald Goldfarb, who served as Acting Dean of SEAS between 1994 and 1995, was appointed Executive Vice Dean. One SEAS student who has followed the situation closely (and who requested anonymity) summed it up elegantly: “Vice Dean Goldfarb is a buffer between the dean and the faculty.” Peña-Mora, however, takes a very different view. “Executive Vice Dean Goldfarb has been very helpful in his new position because I can talk to him about these issues,” he says, adding with a smile, “I’m always telling him, ‘Where were you when I started?’” One of Vice Dean Goldfarb’s greatest strengths, Dean Peña-Mora explains, is his familiarity with SEAS faculty. Peña-Mora only arrived at Columbia in 2009, but “the executive vice dean has a lot of experience here [at Columbia]. He knows all of the stakeholders involved.”

Nate Levick, SEAS ’12 and president of ESC when the Times article was published, says that the problems between Peña-Mora and the faculty may be both reconcilable and fundamental-—depending on whom you talk to. “From what I have gathered from the Dean and his staff, the differences arose from organizational and operational matters, but these issues were indeed amenable,” he says. “On the other hand,” he acknowledges, “I was made aware of specific faculty concerns that indeed seemed very fundamental in nature: if these cannot be reconciled, there will be serious consequences.”

It remains to be seen whether Goldfarb will be able to win over the faculty. In their October letter, the faculty made clear that the appointment of a Vice Dean would not be enough, so long as Peña-Mora remained in office. “Prolonging the tenure of the current Dean,” they warned, “is damaging the school, its reputation, and its ability to retain its top faculty—especially if New York City should choose […] Cornell to establish a new engineering school.” This not-so-veiled threat to leave Columbia for Cornell underscores the seriousness of the faculty’s complaint, but does not really point to a new way forward. Provost Coatsworth assured both the Times and Spectator that Peña-Mora would not be replaced this year, and probably not next year either, and Peña-Mora himself seems certain not only that he can keep his job but that he can repair his relationship with the faculty. Meanwhile, the ongoing disagreement will more than likely remain opaque to undergraduates, who tend toward a quiet confidence in their “Peña-Mora the Explorer.”