Robert Hassenger received a B.A. in philosophy from Notre Dame in 1959, and a Ph.D. from the Committee on Human Development, University of Chicago, in 1965. He returned to Notre Dame as an assistant professor of sociology from 1965 to 1971, served a year as visiting associate professor at Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College, 1971 - 72, and joined the Genesee Valley Center as mentor/associate professor in 1972. In 1974, he became the first associate dean of the Niagara Frontier Center, and then acting dean. Bob moved to Saratoga Springs as special assistant to the academic vice president in 1977 and was one of the four founding faculty of the Center for Distance Learning (CDL). After more than 32 years at Empire State College, Bob retired from his position as coordinator of social sciences at CDL at the end of 2003. He continues to serve as a part-time mentor and professor emeritus. This interview was done on May 21, 2004.
Margaret: I thought we might start out by talking about your education.
Bob: Actually, when I started graduate school at Chicago, I was, for one semester, in political science because I was very caught up in that whole politics of ideals and the Kennedy candidacy. But I realized political science wasn’t quite that glamorous and switched to the Committee on Human Development, which cut across psychology, sociology, anthropology and education. It had fairly few requirements – after the first year, you could put together pretty much what you wanted to do. At that time, I was teaching at a Catholic woman’s college in Chicago, Mundelein (now part of Loyola University); they were doing a self-study for Middle States reaccreditation. I ended up codirecting that process. I saw something interesting in the data we were gathering, out of which emerged my dissertation.
Margaret: It certainly was a period of great change.
Bob: There were huge changes going on in the Catholic Church. There was the Second Vatican Council that had started in ’62. They turned the altar around and started saying the liturgy in the vernacular. So many things that I grew up with were being rethought. It was really a great time. And there were all the changes in the larger society, with the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the new music, art – so much was changing.
Margaret: What kind of initial teaching position did you want?
Bob: I very much wanted to go back to Notre Dame and, oddly enough, they had just started a Psychology Department, after burying it in philosophy for years. But after resisting it for all those years, what they wanted, certainly compared to Chicago, was incredibly empirical. I didn’t like what they were doing. So I went there in sociology and the dissertation turned into a book in 1967, The Shape of Catholic Higher Education, published by The University of Chicago Press. There was so much going on in Catholic higher education that the book got a lot of attention. I was quoted in Newsweek and The Times, I was on one of those Sunday morning shows, on national panels, and on the Academic Commission of the American Council of Higher Education (ACE), which is how I came to know John Jacobson and Morris Keeton (CAEL). It was kind of a heady time for me. But I think I started taking it all too seriously. I was 28!
Margaret: When did you learn about Empire State College?
Bob: In 1972, one of the people I had met at one of those ACE Academic Commission meetings was John Jacobson, who at the time was at a place called Florida Presbyterian College, which has since become Eckerd College. He was the first associate dean at Empire State College – although he never served in that position: between the time he was hired and the time he got to the Genesee Valley Center (GVC), Rochester, they asked him to be dean. As was so often the case in the early days at Empire State College, there was a kind of creative competition, partly because people, like the folks in the SUNY chancellor’s office, and people here at the college, weren’t sure what they wanted. The “director” of the Genesee Valley Center didn’t work out, and left the college. John became dean. In Saratoga, there were four people who thought they were going to become president of Empire State College – one of them was Jim Hall, then a relatively obscure assistant vice chancellor in SUNY Central. (I talked about this in my 1995 faculty lecture, [published in All About Mentoring in the spring, 1995 issue.)] The other three were Arthur Chickering, Loren Baritz and Bill Dodge – and I think each believed at one time that he was going to be the president.
Margaret: And, of course, Jim Hall became our first president.
Bob: I think it was a very shrewd choice by the late Ernest Boyer. Here was this wacky college giving credit for prior learning and not having classrooms and not having bricks and mortar and doing some stuff at a distance. Jim Hall was so straight like a boy scout! I think with people like Baritz or Chickering, we would have been more suspect (not that each hasn’t gone on to distinguished careers elsewhere). But they kept these other people around. So Jim was always trying to keep peace between the factions. Baritz wanted to produce high-quality packaged “modules” to be used throughout SUNY. Chickering saw the faculty more as guides or advisors – models for students who would design their own curricula. Jim Hall was like FDR. He tried something to see if it worked and if it didn’t, he’d move on to something else. And half the people at Empire State College now think that Jim Hall must be a building, probably an athletic facility.
Margaret: And what attracted you to the college?
Bob: I had published a great deal on Catholic higher education and on church-related higher education generally, so I had tilled a little corner of the garden a lot and thought, this is crazy. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life cultivating this little corner. So John Jacobson asked me to come and look at Rochester, and I had seen the positions in the Chronicle, and I thought this might be a subject for some research. But my private thoughts were something like: “These are probably a bunch of touchy-feely types, losers who can’t make it in ‘real’ academe; they can’t do research; they can’t get tenure at a real university. Here’s an institution that probably wants to save souls.” Not that different from church-sponsored higher education, I thought.
Margaret: And when you visited the college, your response was what?
Bob: I was actually impressed. Here were people with Ph.D.s from Harvard and Chicago and from Yale, and they had done things in traditional colleges and universities. These were people who had decided that there’s a better way to do higher education. People turned out to be good scholars who knew that they did not want to stay in that narrow area. What they were fleeing was a kind of academicism. The last thing they wanted was a kind of top-down model – like the model of creating what we called “modules.” Incidentally, I think that legacy ending up hurting CDL years later. Some people thought that we were bringing back that model of prepackaged materials to the college.
Margaret: Soon after, you became acting dean in Buffalo.
Bob: What happened was that I was their first associate dean when they opened in 1974 and became acting dean when the current dean was found to have cancer. But some people in the college had a different idea of what a dean ought to look like, I guess. So in 1977, Ron Corwin, who was then executive vice president, a position we no longer have here, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse – something they called special assistant to the academic vice president, based here in Saratoga Springs. About that time, Jim Hall had gone over to the British Open University (BOU) and was intrigued by what he saw, and the college decided that it would adapt some of the BOU courses for our students. So the late Vincent Worth from the BOU and I spent a year trying to do this. And, around the same time, I started producing courses that made sense to me – courses like Family and Society.
Margaret: So this was the beginning of the Center for Distance Learning. Was there any opposition to this?
Bob: A lot of opposition. Resources were coming here and could have been going elsewhere, and, as I mentioned earlier, the whole idea of modules and packaged courses, of things off the shelf, seemed so anathema to everything Empire State College stood for. But we had some good people – Rich Bonnabeau, Suzanne Graver (now at Williams), and George Bragle – the four of us worked in a little place that is now apartments, in back of 28 Union Avenue: 104 Regent Street. It had been someone’s stable! And then we moved into 28 Union Avenue and then to Two and then Three Union Avenue, and now to 111 West Avenue.
Margaret: Was the center self-standing?
Bob: Chip Johnstone, who was dean of what was then called the Center for Statewide Programs, ended up overseeing CDL. He tried very hard to integrate us into his center, which was really a collection of units. It never worked. The Center for Distance Learning was trying to do its own thing. We had 100, 200, 300 students. And we started to look more threatening to the college because more resources started coming to us. But in the early ’80s, the major change occurred with the computer revolution. Suddenly, distance learning could incorporate a whole different dimension. The possibility of asynchronous learning probably made CDL. And it helped to convert some of the skeptics. You could really have more presence with your students if you were active online than you could in a center. When I was in a center, if I could see a student every two weeks for an hour, that was pretty good. And some of the students came a long way for that meeting, and some mentors didn’t see their students that much either.
Margaret: But at that time, it must have been more e-mail than what we think of now as asynchronous learning.
Bob: When I was first doing this so-called “distance” work, it was print and then phone. But it was really very awkward: “Well, what did you think of the book?” “I liked it … .” It was just polling. Fishing, maybe. Anyhow, I wasn’t very good at it. And I would get behind and if I called a student at the wrong time or missed him or she missed me, then there would be other problems. And some students just wanted to be left alone. 17
Margaret: Do you think that students are more “active” in the forms that we now have?
Bob: The computer really only makes things possible. Probably only about half the students at most are really active in a distance learning course. In mine, at least. And then there are what some people claim are the side issues that come up in the online discussions. But they’re interesting – like the online back and forth that happens on the topic of gay marriage in a course on social change.
Margaret: What other changes do you see as you reflect back to the mid-’80s?
Bob: For one, in terms of our students, there are far more women than men; it was not always that way. When I joined the college, it was about 60 - 40 male to female. Now it’s more than flipped around. (Of course, it has on traditional campuses, too.) And in terms of faculty, women were always more highly represented in the college than they were in most traditional colleges, but nothing like they are now – I think they are probably more than half the faculty. I think that in the early years of the Genesee Valley Center, we had three women out of 14. But in other places of the college there were always strong female voices. Women around the state were important founding people in the college.
Margaret: I want to get back to the tensions that you mentioned about what the college would be like.
Bob: Yes. From the beginning there were tensions between the kind of Baritz model of intellectual rigor and the Chickering model of mentoring, emphasizing affective as well as intellectual growth. And there was a lot of discussion early on about whether to call the faculty mentors or advisors or something else. And Jim Hall was always trying to moderate that discussion.
Margaret: How do you think about mentoring? Is there something distinctive about this model?
Bob: I think it’s probably about the same dynamic that works with students at any level, whether in an elementary school or in graduate school. I think it’s a kind of bond, a kind of psychic connection. It is harder online, but one also can be more free online than sometimes one can be across the desk. It works with some and it doesn’t work with others. For students who want to be taken seriously as learners or who have the experience of being taken seriously by someone for the first time in their lives, there’s almost a kind of transference or a kind of identification that takes place. It’s not psychotherapy: I don’t want to reduce it to that. But there is a process of identification that can take place. It’s an important connection that can happen for some students, and it can happen in a distance learning course as much as in a face-to-face study with a student.
Margaret: So you think that students are looking for these kinds of connections with the faculty?
Bob: I don’t know. I don’t think students are looking for a nice guy. They’re looking for competence, faculty who can do their job. I think most students like it when you can manifest a kind of assurance about your positions on some things. So I’ve never quite understood this dynamic of mentoring or how you can teach it. I assume people try to show others or model what mentoring is like. But I don’t really know how much that matters. Even if you look at a tape of someone working with a student, like the tapes that some people, like Xenia Coulter, Lee Herman and others made, I’m not sure what you learn from those things. It’s not at all clear to me.
Margaret: And how about in your role as area coordinator at CDL? Did that work matter?
Bob: Over the years, a few people have come to me and have said: “You seem to have this job figured out. Why don’t you mentor other people?” And I’d always try to beg off by saying something like: “I’m not sure if my style would work for someone else.” And the rational reason I would give to that was that I started with a handful of tutors and designed my own courses. I had a pretty good sense of what it would mean to develop courses that are intellectually honest and still relevant – courses like Family and Society or Aging and Society. But teaching styles are so different. People can ask me how I do this or that. I can tell them how I do it, but that’s all I can say. I wouldn’t want to claim more than that.
Margaret: You must have been doing something right. I can remember how many tutors attended your retirement celebration and how long they had been tutoring those courses and working with you.
Bob: You try to hire people who seem solid. And then let them alone. I think we micromanage far too much. And I think I said that before. I only have a few things to say, and so I keep saying them, I guess.
Margaret: Can we get back to the question of the technologies and the changes that have altered our work with students at CDL and around the college?
Bob: I think the Internet has not only changed our lives in terms of e-mail – it certainly hasn’t cut down on our workload – but drastically altered the quickness of response to someone you don’t see that often. And, I think, the technology has made us closer as a college. Interestingly, there has always been high morale at CDL, I think partly because we felt we were sort of excluded by the rest of the college. There was a sense of “no one really understands us; we’re as much mentors as you are.” Currently (2004), there is much more of a sense of being part of the college. And this is partly because of the computer. Teaching online is really the way you can effectively reach more than a handful of students each term. More people around the whole college recognize that.
Margaret: So you do see a change.
Bob: Some mentors really want to see the body language across the desk. And yet I’ve known people who took that position very strongly 20 years ago and now really love online mentoring. Each of them says it is more labor intensive but it’s more gratifying. My best student last term (2004) was from Prague. We were already six hours apart. It was completely asynchronous. But I was reading his papers as though he were really there with me. And most learning is like that. If you are reading a book that may have been written a couple of years ago, even if it is a “brand new” book, the author is right there for you. Actually, I’ve come to see that there is a kind of purity in online teaching, in that you are only responding to what that person has written, not by the annoying way he has of clicking his pencil on the table or that she has of twirling her hair. You’re just not distracted by the person. The obvious downside of that is that you don’t get the cues and body language. And, as in any teaching situation, you often wonder: is anyone learning anything and what are they learning? But the very nature of online learning has pushed us to really attend to what we are doing and what students are writing and responding to. That’s also part of its purity.
Margaret: The online environment could be comfortable for some mentors and students and not for others.
Bob: As I mentioned before, I think we have to look at those different learning styles. I don’t think online learning is for everyone. But then I also don’t think that residential college is for everyone. And most adults who had any college at all some years ago think about how much they wasted then; and they’re not just thinking about time partying, but things they didn’t do that they would have really liked to have spent more time at because it interested them, but they had four other courses to do and thus never could get to it. I think more flexibility in when things are due makes a major difference. Just look at the competing demands in the lives of our students. School is often a third or fourth priority. And, of course, this is true whether a student is studying face-to-face or in a residency or via an online course. The flexibility makes a great deal of difference to adults.
Margaret: Some worry that there is less flexibility in the college today than there was 30 years ago.
Bob: Well, I think that’s probably true. And for some students that’s really good. But that is just not the way I want to do it. I was someone in college who always, in fact, had the assignment done 48 hours ahead of time because I just didn’t want to deal with the work under that kind of pressure. And yet some of the brightest guys I knew left the papers to the last minute and did them in the shower because they actually turned off the electricity at 11:00 o’clock. They were in the showers all night writing these things and writing very good stuff. I just couldn’t work that way. I think it’s probably true that if you set deadlines, some people will, in effect, make themselves defer gratification and get it done. But I still don’t know what you’ve taught them if you can get someone to do that.
Margaret: Over your many years in the college, Bob, you have been a mentor and an administrator. Given the history of the college and the changes in the institution as you have described them, what insights have you gained about administration – more specifically about leadership?
Bob: I’ve seen a lot of deans come and go. I think that a dean at Empire State College, in whatever center or program, is in the same kind of position that I mentioned earlier regarding the area coordinator. You’ve got to get the best person you can and then just leave that person alone. I think that the deans who have been most frustrated, and who have been most frustrating for the faculty, have been those who really wanted to micro-manage, who really thought that their responsibility was to make sure everyone was doing his job. And of course, for people who have been here a while, that’s offensive.
Margaret: Don’t people who come to a place like Empire State College make a choice?
Bob: Yes, and especially those who came in the early days of the college. This often meant leaving behind the traditional academic world and the discipline and the guild-quality of it. And I don’t think we realized how much we were burning bridges. We wanted to get out of the narrow confines of the department and all the silliness that goes on in departments on a campus: all the cliques and the wars and the having to choose sides. But some of the administrative choices we have made over the years have been baffling. A lot of strange but also some brilliant choices.
Margaret: We seem to be involved in some difficult discussions these days about how much Empire State College will be like other colleges – for instance the discussion about calendar and about comparability of services wherever you are in the college.
Bob: Empire State College wasn’t meant to be run on a kind of schedule like the German railroad. Maybe, actually, we are closer to the Italian railroad! (Well, my own experience on Italian railroads has actually been very good. And they were on time.) But – and this is also connected back to the discussion of administration – because so many things at the college have not been clearly defined, they weren’t necessarily done the same way on Long Island as they were in Rochester. The key to being a good administrator was accepting the differences. And the differences didn’t matter. In fact, if it worked, if it wasn’t broke, what’s the point of fixing it? Maybe some people found the college difficult to understand and they would have liked to have something more clear-cut, so you could say, “Yes, this is Empire State College.” But the college has never been like that. There always had been a kind of creative anarchy. At one time, you could probably say you had as many colleges as you had mentors, each doing things his or her own way. Some embraced that ambiguity and some administrators, and faculty, too, have left this place screaming and rushing back to traditional academia. And then there are the efforts that you mention about “fixing things” taking place today. There seems to be an inexorable movement toward standardization.
Margaret: Over 30 years have gone by since you came to Empire State College; has your career gone the way you thought it would? Did you ever expect to stay at Empire State College for most of your academic career?
Bob: I knew I wanted something different than the traditional academic department – playing the academic game and doing a lot of publishing. But I certainly don’t think I expected to stay at Empire State College, or maybe at that point I didn’t think about it. But going back to the early years, the early faculty did have other options, as did I; we didn’t really have to be at this college. Most of us had come from traditional academic disciplines and institutions; we thought there must be a different way to do things. I do wonder now, with a tight job market, if we are getting more people who just want a job in higher education, and it doesn’t much matter whether they’re at Empire State College or Michigan State or Florida State. I don’t know. It will be interesting to see how long these newer mentors stay, especially as the job gets more administrative and people like myself, who are transitioning out, say to them as a kind of fair warning, that you don’t necessarily burn bridges by becoming a mentor at CDL or at a regional center. But you do get away from the academic discipline that you were trained in, and it’s very hard to stay au current in those fields and still do a good job of mentoring. And when you’re not publishing and dealing with colleagues in usually a sub-sub discipline, it’s easy to get out of the groove. That’s the reality.
Margaret: And what is your sense of the future of Empire State College?
Bob: I suppose that we’ll still be driven to some extent by something like “student-centered” learning, which seems to have morphed into something more like “customer oriented.” And there’s no reason that students shouldn’t have a wide range of choices – certainly choices that adult students didn’t have in 1972. But if we get too driven by the market and by what’s hot now or where the jobs are, we start doing a lot of things that have always seemed to me to be marginally academic. There’s a kind of snobbishness about this, I suppose, in that I do think an educated person should be able to do some of those things that liberal arts colleges were all about when I was an undergraduate. And they’re less that way today because of the reluctance to impose a core curriculum and, no doubt, there is a good side of that. But people can be spread all over the place or they can really be too professionally focused. There’s another concern I have: that being technologically sophisticated, up on all the latest applications – can be a substitute for a solid grounding in the liberal arts and sciences. They’re not mutually exclusive, and I see some young colleagues who seem to be on top of subject matter fields – today, usually what my generation of academics though of as cross-disciplinary fields – and mastery of the bells and whistles. But I’ve seen more than one faculty presentation that focused so much on the latter, that my colleague’s mastery of the former was obscured. I wonder how this manifests itself in work with students?
Margaret: And how about your future?
Bob: I’m still doing two CDL online courses and some area coordinating work through the summer [of 2004]. I expect to do five courses a year, one each CDL term. I’m on a .25 line. (Does that mean I’d be doing 20 courses a year, were I full time? Maybe I’m being exploited.) I’m doing an online course for Skidmore next year . I’m intrigued by the work. Each term is different online. Of course, every class in every term is different, but I’m kind of surprised. There are certainly similarities, but each of these online classes has a kind of personality of its own, usually shaped by two or three fairly dominant or out-spoken individuals, sometimes dead-wrong, at least from my point of view. But these people do teach the others something, probably because students see how opinionated or closed-minded they really are. They see what it means just not to be open to entertaining any new ideas. So I think, for example, that in one of these recent classes, students are really learning a lot because of the implacable ignorance of one student who was just not going to learn anything he didn’t “know,” by golly. I don’t know how higher education is going to change, but it will. I do worry that with this continuing expectation of more and more, the so-called entitlement revolution, we are all engaged in a kind of defensive credentialing. People need degrees not only in order to gain some status but so they don’t lose status. That treadmill dominates. In this sense, I don’t like the idea of higher education having to offer the latest new thing or, as I mentioned, to respond to every next new thing. So I don’t think this college wants to keep trying to be the first to do things just for the sake of being the first. But I do think this college will continue to be one of the flagships of adult education, even though a lot of people are doing what we were among the first to do back in the 1970s. One of my other concerns, both about the profession and myself, is the continuing – and increasing – tension between learning more about what is technologically possible to do at-a-distance – the “killer apps” – and spending that time reading some of the really good books, perhaps outside one’s field. If I’m going to keep doing courses in social change, I need to understand how the world is flattening, in Thomas Friedman’s coinage. (In my declining years, I also should be spending time trying to get a better handle on the big issues, reading someone like Marcus Aurelius.) I don’t know what the future of Empire State College will be and I really don’t know what the future of Bob Hassenger will be. The college and myself: we’re both works-in- progress. I never would have believed, when I came out of graduate school in 1965 that, almost 40 years later, I would be sitting on a nice porch on a late spring evening in upstate New York talking about retiring from Empire State College. I had never heard of Empire State College. The college didn’t yet exist. I don’t know where I’ll be in five years. I don’t know where the college will be in five years. Stay tuned.
* “Mentoring – Then and Now” was the title of Bob Hassenger’s faculty lecture that acknowledged his receipt of the 1994 Empire State College Foundation Award for Excellence in Scholarship. That lecture was reprinted in All About Mentoring #6.
All About Mentoring, Issue 30, Winter 2006
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