Can one man bridge the apparent communication gap between Dean Feniosky Peña-Mora and SEAS faculty members? Administrators hope so.
In response to calls from faculty for Peña-Mora to be replaced, Donald Goldfarb was named the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s first executive vice dean three weeks ago. The position of executive vice dean was established following an October letter from many tenured faculty members alleging that Peña-Mora had reneged on promises to faculty, worsened the school’s space shortage, sacrificed graduate students’ education for short-term profits, prioritized the ability to attract grants over academic quality when hiring professors, and failed to communicate with SEAS faculty, among other complaints. A copy of the letter was obtained by the New York Times last week.
“A lot of problems were a result of his not knowing what the culture was like here,” Goldfarb said of Peña-Mora, who came to Columbia in 2009 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “There is a more managerial hierarchy at Illinois—Columbia has a flat hierarchy. Faculty are all equal, most of the faculty don’t report to the dean or even their own chairman. Columbia in particular has a very egalitarian type structure. Some of the initial difficulty was due to his not fully understanding how the place works. Thus there was a buildup of disagreements mentioned in the letter.”
The letter from the faculty, addressed to Interim Provost John Coatsworth, called for Peña-Mora’s swift removal from office, as “the morale of the faculty and their trust in Dean Peña-Mora are reaching an all-time low.” Coatsworth told Spectator last week that Peña-Mora will remain dean.
A Columbia spokesperson told Spectator in an email that University President Lee Bollinger believes it has been “productive and valuable for the Provost to work with Dean Peña-Mora and the faculty in responding to legitimate concerns that have been raised while continuing the forward momentum of the engineering school.”
“The dean also has to manage all kinds of things, like financial aid, student services, fundraising, alumni development. My position is to try to take care of the more academic side,” Goldfarb said.
No stranger to Columbia, Goldfarb has been a member of the Industrial Engineering and Operations Research Department since 1982, where he served as chair of the department from 1984 to 2002. In 1994–95, he served as acting dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Goldfarb will take the helm on many of the issues for which Peña-Mora came under fire.
“I deal with all academic issues relating to faculty hiring, promotions, tenure cases, research space and how space is allocated and renovated,” he said. “Often, new faculty experimentalists need a large amount of space, which can involve huge amounts of money. In some cases, renovating a lab can cost $1 million to $2 million. I also deal with educational resources and TA assignments—everything related to the academic, scholarly underpinnings of the school.”
The faculty letter attacked Peña-Mora for mandating an increase in the size of the engineering school’s master’s program and for changing the structure of the SEAS teaching assistant program. According to current TAs, Peña-Mora limited TAs to teaching for only one year and created a SEAS-wide committee to appoint them. Previously, TAs were appointed by departments.
On the allegations that Peña-Mora went back on lab space agreements with some faculty members, Goldfarb said that Peña-Mora had “made agreements based on his belief that he had more space and money for renovation” than he actually did and that “some agreements were pulled back.”
Goldfarb acknowledged that Peña-Mora “has not really communicated well and gotten the trust of the faculty” but said that he will work to “try to provide better communication between the dean and the faculty and try to address miscommunication.”
To students, Peña-Mora is known to be quirky and enthusiastic, and Goldfarb said that his personal impressions of the dean match up.
“He is a very appealing person, very smart, very driven, determined to make a mark,” he said. “His intentions are very laudable, he wants to make the school even better. He is charming and very effective at fundraising from what I can tell. There have been a lot of endowed chairs announced.”
Goldfarb emphasized that many of the accusations the dean faces stem from poor communication and a “build-up of disagreements.”