One Woman’s Presidency

In honor of Women’s History month, we look back on the leadership of Rollins’ first female president, Rita Bornstein ’04H.

Rita Bornstein ’04H stands in front of the Annie Russell Theatre near the end of her presidency in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) Rita Bornstein ’04H stands in front of the Annie Russell Theatre near the end of her presidency in 2003. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections)

This article originally appeared in the summer 2004 issue of Rollins Alumni Record.

August 1, 1990, was appropriately sunny. As Dr. Rita Bornstein climbed the steps of the Warren Administration Building to begin her first day as the 13th president of Rollins College, she was greeted by a banner reading “Welcome Rita!” and a hug from the chairman of the Presidential Search Committee, Allan Keen ’70 ’71MBA. She was considered an unconventional president for the College—a woman, a fundraiser, and not recognizably “of” the academy. (“That I stand before you as a president is testament to the courage and vision of the trustees and faculty who recognized that contemporary presidents may embody characteristics and biographies different from those of their predecessors,” she noted in her inaugural address.)

“Some at the time would say that we took a risk,” said Keen, “but look what we got. The ‘risk’ turned out to be no risk at all. We expected great things from Rita in the development area and we have certainly gotten that; but, to our great pleasure, Rita has proven to be an outstanding academic leader and student advocate.”

Bornstein had more in common with the College’s iconoclastic eighth president, Hamilton Holt, than many initially might have suspected. Like Holt, she would actively build the College’s national reputation, champion the importance of pragmatic liberal education, change the face of the campus, and yes, raise money. She even confronted thorny diplomatic issues on the international stage.

She also identified with the values that characterized the Holt legacy, which would become the hallmarks of her own administration: excellence, innovation, and community. Like those values, the challenges before her—strengthening the College’s quality, building its reputation, and ensuring its financial health—were all inextricably intertwined.

Despite a sagging economy and forecasts of declining enrollments at colleges and universities in the decade ahead, Bornstein launched her presidency with enthusiasm. She formed six task forces to address issues ranging from communication on campus to faculty governance. The Task Force on the 21st Century was charged with initiating strategic planning. The planning process, which incorporated faculty, staff, students, trustees, and alumni culminated with a daylong all-College Summit in the fall of 1991, when classes were canceled so the Rollins community could debate and refine the Task Force’s recommendations. The resulting institutional mission statement, 10 goals, and 75 objectives formed the framework for the College’s operations, initiatives, and fundraising for the next decade. At their core, the bedrock principles: excellence, innovation, and community.

An early, and continuing focus was strengthening the College’s academic profile. Within Bornstein’s first year, she appointed a task force on faculty evaluation to undertake the difficult assignment of raising the standards for faculty tenure and promotion. At the same time, another presidential task force undertook a review of all aspects of the freshmen-year experience. The successful results were evidenced in part by the College’s climb in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of “America’s Best Colleges”: from No. 6 regional university in the South in 1991 to No. 2 in 1995. Rollins has remained No. 1 in Florida and No. 2 in the South for nine years, topped only by the University of Richmond (which boasts a $1-billion endowment).

As the quality of the College’s reputation grew, so did the quality of its students. Average SAT scores for entering Arts & Sciences students rose more than 65 points and the Honors Degree Program was expanded to keep pace. Faculty leaders participating in a Pew Higher Education Roundtable in 1997 had identified and endorsed the goal of making Rollins the #1 college choice of more students. Since 1998, the number of students seeking admission surged more than 60 percent, allowing the College to grow its Arts & Sciences enrollment to 1,733 in 2003, a size that is popular with the student body as well as being financially healthy. This spring, Rollins received the largest number of applicants in its history. Student retention has also escalated, allowing the College to be more selective in the offers of admission it extends, which the happy result at Rollins is now the #1 choice of students who are also the College’s first choice.

Increased retention is also attributed to the improved quality of life in the residence halls. Since the early 1990s, Bornstein has directed the College to refurbish students’ living spaces, first with $4 million of deferred maintenance, followed by a $17.15-million program of facilities upgrades. Lyman, Gale, Fox, Pugsley, Rollins, Mayflower, Elizabeth, and Cross Halls have received renovations thus far, with Hooker and Strong Halls scheduled for this summer. In 2001, the College purchased Sutton Place South Apartments, increasing residential capacity to nearly 80 percent of Arts & Sciences enrollment, a long-term goal.

Bornstein tours the renovation of the Mayflower residence hall in 1992. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) Bornstein tours the renovation of the Mayflower residence hall in 1992. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections)

The pursuit of excellence was not limited to the Arts & Sciences. The Hamilton Holt School, which has provided continuing-education opportunities for nontraditional students in Central Florida since 1961, received numerous accolades for its programs. In 1994, its graduate program in counseling became one of the only two in the state, and Rollins one of the only seven independent institutions in the nation, to earn accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

The Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business also won national recognition from U.S. News & World Report, and from Forbes, which in 2000 named it No. 12 among regional graduate business programs, the only program in Florida to be included.

The fall 2003 applicant pool set records for size and GMAT scores. The Crummer School is one of only 29 graduate schools of business in the U.S. to carry accreditation by AACBS International—The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, and was selected to be one of the first to participate in AACSB’s new Reaffirmation of Accreditation Process. Crummer was commended for its “emphasis on teaching, and the accessibility and currency of the faculty.”

A further reflection of the College’s growing reputation for quality is that all recently hired new faculty have been the first-choice selections of their departments, and Rollins has been their first choice. It is a Bornstein credo that the faculty are the heart of the academic enterprise. In the first week of her presidency, she was already stating that she wanted to raise funds for endowed chairs, to enable the College to attract and retain distinguished faculty. At the time, there were nine named chairs; by the start of Bornstein’s 14th year, there were 24, which will grow to 30, thanks to the generous bequest of George D. Cornell ’35 ’85H.

Among the added chairs is the George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Chair of Distinguished Presidential Leadership, which was created in 2001 as part of the first endowment of a college presidency in the nation. The $10-million gift from George Cornell was presented in recognition of Bornstein’s leadership.

Bornstein loves her faculty—even (perhaps especially) the cantankerous ones. Dean of the Faculty Roger Casey has remarked on how impressed he is by her affection for Rollins’ professors. “Walk into her office, sit at her conference table, and serving as centerpieces are all the latest books and articles published by faculty. Metaphorically, faculty are central to her worklife. And physically, the products of their scholarship are constantly in front of her… For Rita, this display comes from pride.”

And, her faculty love Bornstein. The outpourings of feelings on the announcement of her decision to step down from the presidency were spontaneous and overwhelming. Hoyt Edge, associate dean of the faculty and Hugh F. and Jeannette G. McKean Professor of Philosophy, emailed from a conference, “I would love to have been there to join the rest of the faculty in the standing ovation for you. I wonder how many college presidents in the country would have gotten that kind of response; it was rather astounding, I think, but certainly highly deserved.”

Bornstein leads the faculty procession at Commencement in 1998. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) Bornstein leads the faculty procession at Commencement in 1998. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections)

“I wasn’t expecting to feel so sad, so devastated, really,” wrote Barbara Carson, Theodore Bruce and Barbara Lawrence Alfond Professor of English. “She’ll always be a part of Rollins because of her tremendous legacy—not just in buildings and endowment, but also in the principles of excellence that she’s championed.”

The increasing quality of the College’s academic reputation and its developing financial health have been mirrored in the beautification of the campus. Armed with an updated campus master plan formulated with campuswide input, landscaping was refined, the view of Lake Virginia was restored, and visual standards were defined. Facilities needs identified in the strategic-planning process were addressed. During her 14 years in office, Bornstein presided at dedications of a technology center, costume studio, campus center, executive education center, bookstore, sports complex, tennis stadium, entrance gateway, admission and financial aid center, and softball field. This summer, expansion of the soccer field and construction of the soccer stadium will be completed, and expansions of the music building and the museum are under way. It is no wonder that in some circles, she became known as “the Rita Phenom.”

Today, the beauty of the campus has become an emblem of the institution’s quality. As Lauren Matthews Baldwin ’86 wrote, “It is truly a school which is pretty on the outside but also truly pretty when you become part of it.”

Rollins revisited its roots more than once during the Bornstein presidency. Hamilton Holt’s experimental Conference Plan, which replaced the traditional lecture format with active conversations between faculty and students, had drawn Rollins national attention; it also provided the inspiration for the College’s successful first-year program, the Rollins College Conference (RCC), introduced in 1994. Each entering first-year student is required to enroll in an RCC course, which is taught by a faculty member who also serves as the students’ advisor. Professors who are assisted by upperclass students serving as peer mentors, engage students outside the classroom as well. Increased retention of first-year students is ascribed in part to their RCC experience, which helps ease the transition to college life and lays the foundation for a successful Rollins career.

Bornstein challenged faculty and administrators to think creatively about how best to meet students’ needs in preparation for their lives and careers in the new millennium. Innovative multidisciplinary majors and minors, such as international business and sustainable development and the environment, were added to the Arts & Sciences curriculum, and a thorough review of the general education requirements was initiated.

Keeping pace with the undergraduate program, the Holt School introduced two top-quality, interdisciplinary masters degrees: the Master of Human Recources and the Master of Arts in Corporate Communication and Technology. The Master of Liberal Studies program, the first MLS in Florida, celebrated its 25th anniversary. The Crummer School redesigned its MBA offerings to meet the needs of two special markets: adults with significant work experience who wanted a fast-track program and recent graduates who sought both education and experience. The resulting Accelerated and Early Advantage MBAs now serve as models for other schools’ programs.

Bornstein stands in front of the newly-opened Cornell Campus Center and the fountain that bears her name in 1999. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) Bornstein stands in front of the newly-opened Cornell Campus Center and the fountain that bears her name in 1999. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections)

A landmark of the Bornstein presidency was the 1997 national conference “Toward a Pragmatic Liberal Education: The Curriculum of the 21st Century.” The Rollins Colloquy brought 200 college and university presidents and higher education leaders from across the country to Rollins to consider the future of liberal education. Spearheaded by Bornstein, keynoted by nationally recognized scholars Louis Medand, Alexander Astin, Lee Shulman, and Troy Duster, and co-sponsored by Rollins’ Christian A. Johnson Institute for Effective Teaching, The College Board, the Council of Learned Societies, and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, with the support from the Jessie Ball DuPont Fund, the Colloquy renewed and reconfirmed Rollins’ role in the history of higher education, established nearly 70 years before by Hamilton Holt’s 1931 National Curriculum Conference, chaired by John Dewey. The resulting book, Education and Democracy: Re-imagining Liberal Learning in America, featuring a chapter by Bornstein, remains an important document in the conversation about the liberal-arts curriculum.

Although she published book chapters, articles, and columns (including a 12-part online diary on values and the College presidency) throughout her administration, one of Bornstein’s key accomplishments is the 2003 publication of her book Legitimacy in the Academic Presidency: From Entrance to Exit. She had already drawn national attention to the changing role of the college president when she persuaded the American Council on Education to devote an issue of its journal, The Presidency, to articles evolving from the Southern University Conference program “Redefining Presidential Leadership in the 21st Century,” which she had convened. Legitimacy in the Academic Presidency has been hailed as an innovative construct in higher education, combining theory, data, and personal experience.

Bornstein actively sought to create opportunities for community to thrive at Rollins. Recognizing the need for friendly gathering places, she suggested plazas and garden areas that invited students, faculty, and staff to stop and chat. Among those were her own gifts to the College, Rita’s Fountain and Harland’s Haven. She championed the Cornell Campus Center and was deeply involved in its planning (including fulfilling the faculty request for Starbucks coffee).

To cultivate further intellectual community among the faculty, she and the faculty president co-hosted a series of lunchtime discussions on such topics as globalization, postmodernism, and peace in the Middle East.

The high point of community on campus remains the Fox Day picnic, as students, faculty, and staff, and their families join together on Mills Lawn for supper with the Fox. Bornstein enlisted President’s List students to help her implement the holiday, which still falls on a sunny spring day when it is anticipated but not quite expected, and most appreciated.

Not every day was sunny, however. There were losses—both personal and national, for students, faculty, staff, and alumni—and the campus grieved as a community. Bornstein was always there, offering sympathy and strength. Patrick Powers, dean of the Knowles Memorial Chapel and chaplain to the College, has observed, “When we are at our worst, she is at her best.”

Bornstein works with Rollins students and staff on local Habitat for Humanity project in 1996. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) Bornstein works with Rollins students and staff on local Habitat for Humanity project in 1996. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections)

During the 1990s, the Rollins community developed a commitment to service that has now become second nature. With Bornstein’s encouragement, the Center for Public Service (now the Center for Leadership & Community Engagement) was established to provide coordination of campus volunteer service efforts. Growing numbers of service-learning courses have incorporated service into the curriculum. The refocusing of student activities programming on student leadership and involvement and the recent addition of the Community Engagement Initiative have created a dynamic structure that links leadership education and service.

Arts & Sciences students alone contribute more than 10,000 hours of community service annually. Add the thousands of hours of service performed by students in the Holt School and the Crummer School, where a community-service component was recently added to the curriculum, as well as faculty and staff, and the magnitude of Rollins’ contribution to the community becomes apparent.

Bornstein’s own service has been considerable, further raising the College’s profile in the local community, the state, and national higher education circles. In addition to sitting on the boards of the American Council on Education and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, where she also chaired the Government Relations Committee, she served on the Executive Council of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges. She chaired the Associated Colleges of the South, Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, and Sunshine State Conference. She is current chair-elect of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). In Orange County, she served on various special commissions and boards, including the Economic Development Commission of Mid-Florida and United Arts of Central Florida.

In 1999, Rollins became the home of the Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership Center (PNLC), a special outreach initiative providing education, information, and advocacy for nonprofit service providers and funding organizations in Central Florida. The importance of the PNLC’s work to nonprofits throughout the state, and beyond, quickly became obvious and the scope of the PNLC’s portfolio was pressed to expand. Bornstein was frequently asked to speak on topics related to philanthropy, leadership, and ethics, and to participate in public-policy conversations such as The Governor’s Forum: Engaging in a Civil Society in 2000 and the first annual Philanthropy Summit, sponsored by McCormic Tribune Foundation in 2004.

As the College acquired adjacent properties to help expand its lake-locked campus and ease space concerns, it also expanded its role in Winter Park. College land on Park Avenue that had stood vacant for years was developed as the award-winning Sun Trust Plaza and its parking garage. Along with the gift of the Samuel B. Lawrence Center, these commercial properties provide important income for the College’s educational programs and add monies to the City’s tax rolls.

Fred Rogers ’51 ’74H with Bornstein in 1996. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) Fred Rogers ’51 ’74H with Bornstein in 1996. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections)

In a model partnership, the College and the City have constructed a softball complex at the City’s Lake Island Park. The site serves as home field of Rollins’ softball team and as a recreational facility for west Winter Park children. Rollins coaches will provide sports clinics for local residents.

Perhaps the most visible symbol of these cordial town-and-gown relations is the McKean Gateway, dedicated by College and City officials in 2002. The first formal entrance in Rollins’ history, it connects downtown Winter Park with the campus in a manner that is both welcoming and stately and communicates the College’s proud identity. Internationally recognized architect and planner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk ’95H wrote Bornstein to express her pleasure at seeing the traditional gateway, noting that “Before long people will be thinking that it was there from the start!”

In the fall of 1993, Bornstein wrote alumni, “Our long-range goal is to secure Rollins’ niche as a high-quality innovative college, exemplifying the values of liberal learning, the art of teaching, and the application of knowledge.” The strategic plan was the road map to that destination, and The Campaign for Rollins would provide the fuel to get there.

Bornstein had told the College community, “Our quest for excellence, innovation, and community will demand extraordinary courage.” For some it would also require a leap of faith. The Campaign goal of $100 million seemed formidable, if not impossible, for an institution that had raised less than half that amount in its last campaign, and whose alumni were known for their love, but not their philanthropic support, of their alma mater. Bornstein was about to change all that.

Following significant ground work, the five-year Campaign was announced in October 1996. Three years later, gifts and pledges had exceeded the goal, and George Cornell had sweetened that announcement with his surprise commitment of $10 million for scholarships. By the conclusion of The Campaign for Rollins in October 2001, the total raised was $160.2 million, including another surprise Cornell gift—the $10-million endowment for the presidency. As impressive as the results was the fact that more than half of that amount came from alumni.

Of the funds raised, $40.3 million was contributed for capital projects and $78.7 million was designated for endowment (with more than one-third of that amount earmarked for scholarships). The influx of gifts, combined with exceptional investment performance and conservative fiscal policy, boosted Rollins’ endowment into uncharted territory; from less than $39 million in 1990, its value has more than quintupled. When George Cornell’s extraordinary $93.3-million bequest is fully distributed, it is expected that the endowment will reach $260 million.

Like pieces in a puzzle, they all came together—institutional reputation, academic excellence, physical beauty, financial stability. She made it look so easy. Characterized by the courage and confidence she called upon at the conclusion of her inaugural address, Rita Bornstein not only fulfilled her promise, but surpassed it beyond anyone’s greatest expectation—except, perhaps, her own. She’s leaving a gem, perfect as it is, but ready for a larger setting.

She is truly the Rita Phenom.