Back when CUNY trustees unanimously voted to appoint James Muyskens as president of Queens College, the school was struggling to bounce back from shaky leadership under a president who stepped down after losing credibility. With Washington Monthly this year ranking it No. 2 as the “Best Bang for the Buck” Muyskens will have left the college in a much more elevated standing when he retires at the end of 2013.
From an early age, Muyskens knew he wanted to be an educator and he credits a high school math instructor for inspiring him to pursue a career as a math teacher. After taking a logic course as part of his curriculum at Central College in Iowa, however, he soon gravitated to philosophy, a field he was fascinated with since it didn’t always have concrete answers.
The driving need to evaluate social constructs helped mold the rest of his career. Contemplating becoming a minister, as his father had been, he obtained a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he learned about world religions. It further encouraged his zest for contemplation and prepared him for understanding a diverse student body at Queens College.
After receiving a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Michigan, he moved onto Hunter College, quickly rising up the ranks from assistant professor to chairman of the philosophy department. Following 17 years at the school he then became dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas.
He found his next challenge in Atlanta, Ga., where he worked as the vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University System of Georgia under Gov. Zell Miller, a heavy supporter of education reform. From 1995 to 1999 Muyskens was involved in increasing tech use in the classroom and college enrollment and study-abroad opportunites for students, practices which he later continued when he became president of Queens College in 2002.
“The world comes to us,” Muyskens said of his international student body, “but we still have to send students out into the world.”
He additionally sought to expand cultural exchanges right on his own campus. He pushed for the creation of a residence hall for 500 students, which he credits with helping international recruitment and improving student life. He says he also values hearing that many students pursue careers in public service, keeping in line with the college’s motto, “We learn so that we can serve.”
Of his teaching days, he recalls a former student he taught 10 years prior rushing to greet him on the streets of Manhattan. The man was eager to let Muyskens know that a lesson on Soren Kierkegaard had forever changed his outlook on life. The benefit in critical thinking he sees students having years later is what has propelled him to return to teaching freshmen. He will continue his own public service as a philosophy teacher in CUNY schools after retirement.