Life is altogether different for new Pace University President Marvin Krislov. In August, he traded the comforts of small town Ohio, for the concrete skyscrapers of New York City. At Oberlin College, where Krislov was president for a decade, the roughly 3,000-member student body makes up close to half the city’s population. Now, he is heading a university more populous than many towns.
Fortunately, the Kentucky native enjoys a challenge. Pace University is home to a lot more first-generation, minority and immigrant students than Oberlin. As a result, he sees the institution and its leaders as pivotal to conversations about upward mobility, college affordability and access.
Throughout his career, Krislov has been a champion of access and diversity. Besides launching a program to erase debt for some low-income students, he defended the University of Michigan's affirmative actions policies in a case that went before the Supreme Court. Krislov spoke to the Education Dive about his background and meeting the needs of diverse student bodies.
Editor's Note: These responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What influenced you to work in higher education?
I think a lot of it goes back to my family, the commitment to education. Both my parents were from working class backgrounds. My dad was the son of an Orthodox rabbi and he was very much a Depression-era child, as was my mother. My mother was actually born in Poland and moved to this country at the age of one.
My parents really focused on two things. One is the power of education to change people's lives and the other is the importance of providing opportunity to others less fortunate. I think education has been shown to be the most effective way to change people's lives. Also, I do enjoy the sense that every day if we work intelligently, thoughtfully and carefully we can make a difference in someone's life. That's something that I don't know if everyone can say about their jobs. I feel that I've been able to say that about my job.
Pace University has been applauded for being a leader in student upward mobility. Can you speak to why the institution has been so successful in this arena?
In my view we can do it even better. We take a striver population and we give them a lot of support and mentoring. We have programs that serve the special needs of certain students, whether it's an academic need or other things, like linking them to opportunities outside the classroom. So there's this individualized mentoring, but then there's this connection to the outside world in New York City or Westchester County. Both of those are great places for things like internships and practice. The students really want to succeed, and I think that by giving them the support we enable that.
What are the biggest challenges facing higher education today?
The biggest challenge is money, and I think any college president in the country would say that. The cost of higher education is expensive and we really can't become that much more efficient without losing quality. And we want to keep the quality. There are costs associated with people, including healthcare, that are rising. Many of us are attached to older buildings. To make sure that those buildings are up-to-date with technology, you need to spend money. Pace is investing a lot of money right now. We just finished major a renovation of our Westchester campus. We're doing a $200 million renovation to this [Manhattan] campus.
Our campuses are also becoming more diverse. Pace is diverse and it’s going to become even more diverse. It’s a great opportunity, but to do [embrace diversity] successfully requires some effort and you need to be attentive to the needs of different populations.
From an economic point of view, you can either invest in young people when they're eager, hungry and ready to work, or you can do it years later when people are disaffected and not terribly productive. To me, the investment in education makes so much sense. You spend a little bit more on student aid now and you get students through college and maybe even some sort of second degree — they're going to be more likely to earn money, be productive, and all the data support that.
It's hard because government has its own financial constraints. I wish that educational investment were considered more part of the economic policy. I worry that we've lost that.
Early thoughts on serving post-traditional learners?
We have to really try to understand what works for that population. Whether it's the location of the courses, perhaps some combination of online, can be very valuable in terms of helping you learn. We also need to understand better what kinds of credentials or degrees non-traditional students benefit from. One of the things we do is try to work with employers and understand the market. We've worked with the federal government to try to understand what their needs are. We have a program with the [federal] Office of Personnel Management that allows people to get a Masters in Public Administration. We have a program with NACTEL, the National Coalition for Telecommunications Education and Learning.
We need to be less siloed. We are working on combination degrees that may combine business and health, or tech and health, or tech and business. Schools within universities have to think about ways to bring people together, and sometimes it's just making sure people from different places are talking to each other.
As a former lawyer in the White House Counsel office, the Department of Justice, and the Labor Department, can you advise universities and college administrators on building better relationships with elected officials and policymakers?
The best way to appreciate what we do is to meet our students. I think students are very compelling to politicians and policymakers because then they can really hear the difference that education is making. I've met plenty of students whose stories were incredible. I recently met a DREAMER whose story is so compelling. She has agreed to testify [before Congress], and she's talked about how her parents came here when she was very young. This woman is involved in public service and she's doing well in school and she's working two jobs. When you meet someone like this and you hear her accomplishments and her story, you can't question the value. In addition to data, people like to see a human face on it and really hear their stories.
As a champion of diversity, what do you know about diversity that other higher ed leaders should know?
My experience has taught me that creating a diverse and inclusive environment takes an ongoing effort. You can't really think that we've succeeded fully — it's always something to be thinking about. I also include intellectual diversity into that. I think having people with different points of views is also what I value in a diverse environment.
My parents came from a sort of social justice background rooted in Jewish traditions. My mother was also involved in efforts to desegregate public schools in Lexington. Anybody who's really honest would say that we all come to our work in our lives with certain backgrounds and certain experiences, and we have to fight against making assumptions. One way to really fight against those assumptions is to be exposed to people and ideas who are different. Having diverse student bodies is a ways of really having those discussions, because a lot of meaningful discussions take place among students and faculty. Faculty and student diversity are very critical to a quality education.
I also think international students contribute to our understanding of the world and thinking differently. It's exciting to be at a university, because we are at the cutting edge of some of these changes, in terms of diversity.
How have your hobbies changed since moving to New York City?
It's easier to go to theater, although it costs more. It's harder to play tennis and it’s cheaper to walk. I am a biker. I like the Citi Bike program. Central Park is great. The cultural amenities are great. Just walking around and seeing the range of things and people, it’s never ending. Trying to balance work and play, including exercise, is sometimes a challenge.
Watch: Pace President Marvin Krislov sings Cafeteria Karaoke with students as a lead-up to The Voice auditions at the school.