The Plan: TO END WELL, START WELL

October 3, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

As a former CUNY student, faculty member, and administrator, Carole M. Berotte Joseph, Ph.D., is uniquely equipped to run Bronx Community College, which is experiencing a major transition in curricula, student services, and with its campus expansion.

In addition to her understanding of the CUNY system — Berotte Joseph served as vice president of academic affairs at Hostos Community College after being a faculty member at City College for more than 20  years — she brings to BCC years of experience from other institutions. As president of Massachusetts Bay Community College in Wellesley Hills, Mass., from 2005 until 2011, when she joined BCC, Berotte Joseph was lauded for increasing graduation rates. She also served as chief academic officer and dean of academic affairs at Dutchess Community College of the State University of New York, where she provided leadership for the academic programs.

At BCC, which has 11,000 degree-seeking students and more than 14,000 adult and continuing education students, Berotte Joseph’s major challenge is devising effective strategies to retain students and increase graduation rates. With a new freshmen seminar, a teacher-development program, and new study-abroad opportunities, she has already made significant advances in that direction. She says she took the  job because she saw potential in the college and its historic University Heights campus.

“There are a lot of pockets of good things going on here. We have excellent academic departments — among them chemistry, art, music and communications — but the world doesn’t know about them.  I want to make sure that we raise our stature and graduate more students. We have a gorgeous campus with a newly constructed library, which opened its doors in the fall of 2012. I’m very excited about the opportunity to be here at this time as president, and I’m looking to attract stellar staff to help move the institution forward.”

Joseph was born in Haiti and immigrated to the U.S. with her family in 1957. She received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish with a minor in French and education from York College, a master’s in Curriculum and Teaching from Fordham University, and a doctorate in sociolinguistics and bilingual education from New York University.

How are your years of experience in higher education guiding the transformation at BCC?

I believe I bring a vision of excellence. I have knowledge of the CUNY system and also got to see how SUNY operated. After that I went to Massachusetts. That experience opened new horizons for me and helped me to think more creatively about possibilities. While the centerpiece of my focus has always been the student, I didn’t come here with a vision that I wanted to implement. I wanted to learn first. In my first year, I did a lot of listening. Now I am ready to move forward.

In April you testified at a hearing on higher education at City Hall that students are not coming to college prepared. What steps are you taking to help them?

When students come to CUNY they have to take a placement test so that we know if and what kind of remedial classes they need. But classes alone are not going to do it; we need to look at the quality of teaching and ways to improve faculty outcomes. There are faculty members who are very successful, and there are others who are not.  For those who are not successful, department chairs have to be held accountable. We are working with faculty members who are interested in looking at what they’re doing in the classroom and ways to improve. People have to learn to take pride their work and be accountable for their outcomes.

BCC has among the lowest retention and graduation rates in the CUNY system. Can this be corrected quickly?

We realize that if we don’t capture our students in their first year, they are not going to be successful. We have developed a new freshmen seminar. It will be a basic orientation for new college students, focusing on time management, career exploration, and study skills. We did a pilot in which we ran 10 sections of the first-year seminar; we decided to do them for one credit, two hours. Faculty conceived the themes: art, criminal justice, social history. Students made their selections based on their interests. We incorporated high-impact practices designed to engage students in college life. Studies done of the pilot revealed a high degree of student engagement and interest in the seminars. Based on preliminary Fall 2012 enrollment data, we are predicting a higher retention rate for those students. We have every reason to believe that as we build on our initial success, retention and eventually graduation rates will improve. In addition, we’re reorganizing advisement. I have combined counselors in student affairs with academic advisers and put them under one umbrella called “academic success.” We also put in place an early alert system as well as midterm grades so that students will better know where they stand.

You taught at City College for 20 years. Has this experience helped you as an administrator?

It certainly has! An administrator is also a teacher because you are leading a team. I have to be the chief cheerleader and let my team members know that I believe in them. Faculty hired here all come through me. I interview them with the provost. My background is in teacher training and teacher development, so I’m focused on development because I think a teacher does make a difference.

What changes have you implemented in your first year at BCC?

As I mentioned, the first-year seminar was reorganized and we consolidated academic advisement. Both are works in progress. I’m working on expanding study-abroad opportunities. Students need to know about the rest of the world, and they have to be exposed to different things, so my role is to raise money to provide scholarships for them to do that. Community colleges don’t see themselves doing study abroad, because traditionally they saw themselves as two-year schools. But that’s the old mentality since most students stay longer than two years. Companies want global workers. How are our students going to be global if they don’t leave their neighborhood? We have a CUNY-Haiti initiative, and I’d like to see more people from this campus participate. One of the things I started developing is internship opportunities. We have very good relationships with hospitals because we have nursing and radiology technology programs. But our engineering, business, and automotive-technology programs need help with internships.

You’re an expert in the field of sociolinguistics and you speak four languages fluently: English, Spanish, French and Haitian Creole. What made you want to transition to the administrative side of higher education?

I have always been a doer. I loved research, and I was intrigued when I did my dissertation. But when I was offered an associate dean position at Hostos Community College, and then became a vice president there, I realized I could get things done. I liked doing things, and I liked making positive changes. Administration is a good fit for me. But I miss teaching, and every opportunity I get to teach, I do. I’m hoping I can teach one of our freshmen seminars in the future.

In June, you went to Haiti, where you have been involved in helping rebuild the country’s higher education. That must be a cause that is near and dear to your heart.

Absolutely. There is so much work to be done in that country. My experience in growing up as a child in Haiti was so different from what it would be like today. I took piano and violin lessons offered by my school. There was a park with a luminous fountain where the kids would go bicycling. There was classical music playing. I go to Haiti now and the fountain is not working, and everything is a mess. Much of the middle class has left. I was thrilled that CUNY chose to partner with four public colleges. We’re going to help them establish practical degrees in community health, culinary arts and hospitality.

Your appointment as a president of BCC marks your return to your roots in the University system. Why did you decide to come back?

It was just wonderful to come back to New York. I’m a New Yorker at heart. My family and friends are here. Right before I applied for this position my husband passed away. I was mostly by myself in Massachusetts with no family nearby. When I was offered this position I was very happy.

You are involved in several organizations and boards. What do you do to unwind?

I listen to music. I love salsa and classical music. I love to dance, and I love to read. I enjoy going to concerts. Then, of course, there’s my family, which is very close-knit. We are always celebrating someone’s birthday. BCC welcomed me at a good time, because I am at a point in my life where I can dedicate a lot of time to the college.