That tall Lincoln-esque figure seen on the Queens College campus for the last 11 years will be leaving at the end of the year to return to teaching.
James Muyskens, 70, president of the CUNY school in Flushing, has announced his retirement as of Dec. 31. He will become a professor of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan.
Muyskens will be replaced by Evangelos Gizis as interim president. A CUNY search committee will pick Muysken’s successor to start next fall.
Reflecting on his decade-plus experience at the college, Muyskens told the Chronicle on Tuesday that he had achieved most of what he hoped for when he started his tenure in 2002. “It’s been a tremendously successful decade,” the president said. “A college needs stability as well as a fresh face from time to time. I’m confident we’ll get good people to apply.”
One of the major hurdles he faced was community opposition to a proposed residence hall on campus. It was built and houses 500 students.
“It changed the dynamics of student life on campus,” Muyskens said. “The 500 are a magnet for other students to stay for clubs and other events and the security issues feared by the community did not materialize.”
He believes the community now finds the dormitory a plus, not a minus. “After Hurrican Sandy it was the residence hall students who helped displaced people staying at the gym.”
Muyskens is also proud of the number of faculty members hired under his tenure. “We added more than 300 and we recruited top world scholars,” he said. “It was an amazing accomplishment.”
He noted that in 2011, Education Trust named Queens College as one of five top schools throughout the nation that excel in serving low-income students. And just a few weeks ago, Washington Monthly ranked Queens College second in the nation as the best bang for the buck.
“We want to continue to provide quality education at low cost so we need to raise lots of money,” he added.
One of his goals was to increase enrollment. Since taking over, it has jumped from 15,000 to 20,000. “Now, we need to determine what is the right number,” Muyskens said. “We have limited space.”
Musing over his goal to reach out to the larger community, he said the college has to be seen as a resource to the community and renovating the college’s arts venues helped as well as offering programs that attract adults and children.
“We have also made the campus more attractive by getting rid of the chain-linked fence around it, adding trees and benches and WiFi,” he said. “We want people to be proud of the campus.”
Muyskens is also proud of adding the “Year Of” program on campus, introduced in 2010, which focuses on a different country each year through its history, art and culture. This year the country is Brazil.
The retiring president said he will miss most the students, 50 percent of whom were born in other countries. “Many are very appreciative of going to college here and grateful for whatever they get and they know they will have to make it on their own,” Muyskens said. “Some are even helping to support their families now.”
An avid tennis player, he plans to stay active as long as possible. He is excited about having more time to visit his two grandchildren in Virginia. “I don’t want them to grow up without being in my life,” Muyskens said.
He and his wife already have a place to live in Washington, DC and they expect to move from Little Neck to New Jersey, because it’s an easy access point to both DC and Manhattan.
Reflecting on his departure from Queens, Muyskens said his first love is teaching and “I stayed longer than I thought I would because it was such a good job. I will be teaching in Manhattan and at different CUNY places, but not at Queens College. I want to give the new person room and don’t want to interfere.”
Muyskens came to Queens College from a University of Georgia affiliate, where he served as a chief executive officer. He grew up in Minnesota and graduated from Central College in Iowa.
He received his Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan. Muyskens taught philosophy for 17 years at Hunter College and later served as associate and acting provost there. He and his family lived in Queens during that time.
He later served as a dean at the University of Kansas and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University System of Georgia.
Looking ahead to teaching in the classroom, Muyskens said it will be a different pace as a professor. “It’s a 24/7 job now,” he added.