When he arrived as a graduate student in 1984, Vincent Boudreau, Ph.D. ’91, thought he would study African politics and perhaps join the diplomatic corps. Then he walked into a class taught by Professor Benedict Anderson, an expert on the politics, history and languages of Southeast Asia.
“It was magical,” he says. “They weren’t just ordinary graduate students in that class: There were two Thai activists in exile and a guy who had been the editor of the paper most critical of the Indonesian government.”
Students in the class read literature, journals and primary historical documents, but Boudreau also learned invaluable lessons from his fellow students who had direct experiences with dictatorships and resistance movements.
Boudreau would soon discover the impact and reputation of Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program and its network of alumni. He also would discover a role that protest would play in his life when he was swept up in anti-Apartheid demonstrations on campus, where students called for Cornell to divest in South African companies. He found himself spending the rest of his doctoral studies immersed in learning about political protest movements, first in classes and then by living with, and writing about, insurgents in the Philippines.
“That kind of engagement allowed me to think inside the movement,” he says about the two years he spent doing field research, mostly with people involved in peasant organizations seeking social justice.
These days, Boudreau spends his time tirelessly promoting the work of students and faculty at the City College of New York as its new president, a job he formally took over in December 2017 after serving as interim president for more than a year.
His career has led him from one leadership position to another – from political science professor to department head to leader of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at City College to City College’s 13th president.
“I utterly fell in love with the mission of this place,” he says about City College, which he joined as a faculty member in 1991. It has a rich history as the first free university in the U.S. and one of the first to admit Jewish students and students of color. In a recent survey, Boudreau says 90 percent of those students who responded said that they were born in a country other than the U.S.
“This university has always been a place where we don’t care about money, about class, about property,” he explains. “Whatever the barriers to admission that exist elsewhere, City College has made access one of its signature values.”
Offering that education comes with a host of challenges, some financial, some structural and some reputational, Boudreau says, admitting that his work is cut out for him.
In the early 1970s, New York state made a tremendous investment in City College, Boudreau says, hiring the best faculty from around the country and investing in buildings and programs. But when the bottom dropped out of the New York economy later that decade, financial support dwindled, funding shifted from the city to the state, and most untenured professors lost their jobs. The college didn’t hire again in great numbers until the 1990s.
When Boudreau arrived, some departments were stagnant, with many professors from pre-crisis years but few new faces and buildings that needed work. Research faculty and students were doing groundbreaking work, but with no one telling their stories.
He became chair of the government department and pushed to hire new faculty, while the number of majors climbed from 65 to 130. Seeking new opportunities for his students, he helped shape the existing Colin Powell Center into what eventually became the Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. That organization offered fellowship, leadership and research opportunities to attract a new generation of students and faculty. Now as president, he says his mission is clear.
“This city is filled with people whose lives have been fundamentally changed by City College,” he says. “While we’ve done a good job talking about our students and how successful they are, we haven’t done as good a job talking about how our whole institution is geared toward improving social mobility.”
From biomedical engineering faculty focused on studying health care disparities to history and sociology faculty members working on immigrant issues, to a medical school training primary-care doctors who plan to work with underserved populations, Boudreau says everything at City College is geared to improving the lives of people like their students.
The college is already seeing fundraising success, with close to $2 billion of new science buildings going up in the last few years, a $5.3 million gift arriving in February to support science and mathematics initiatives, and increased support from a dedicated alumni base. At the halfway point this year, the college had already surpassed its fundraising marks for the past two complete years.
“We have work to do, telling our story, fixing critical infrastructure issues and working to close a significant budget gap,” he says. “But the legacy of this institution is precious, and the promise of the young people who come here to study is beyond calculation. We were recently named the second most successful college in the country in promoting social mobility among our students. That’s a legacy I look forward to building upon.”