A National View from the Bronx

Crain’s magazine recently called Lehman College President Ricardo Fernández one of the top 100 business and community leaders in New York City. A former chairman of the national Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, he now serves on its board. President Fernandez also chairs the Hispanic Educational Telecommunications System, a national distance-learning consortium, and is chair-elect of the Board of the American Association of Higher Education. CUNY Matters’ Rita Rodin spoke with him in his campus office.

President Fernández

Q: For 12 years, you’ve been president of Lehman College, where 47 percent of the students are Hispanic. You recently testified before a Senate Committee on the Digital and Wireless Network Technology Act. What issues were you addressing?

President Fernández:
This is legislation to provide funds to minority-serving institutions—not just Hispanic colleges, but tribal colleges for Native Americans and historically black colleges and universities—to build up the infrastructure of telecommunications so they can be up to par with the institutions that have the resources to do that. There are a number of CUNY Hispanic-serving institutions that could apply for funds, maybe as much as half a million dollars a year, for a period of two, three years, to invest in technology.

Q: You took part in a press conference in Washington on the new report, “Latinos in Higher Education: Many Enroll, Too Few Graduate,” produced by the Pew Hispanic Center. You have worked on the problem of Hispanic students dropping out. What are some possible solutions for this problem?

A: I prefer to speak of students leaving school. The term “dropout” places responsibility on the individual and absolves the institution. And I think we have to redefine that.

Q: Not everybody drops out because they’re failing, right?

A: That’s correct. We looked at students who dropped out of school but who were in the top ten percent of the tests. They were bored to tears! These kids were very smart and they were just totally disengaged and disillusioned with school.

Q: They were in high school?

A: High school kids. The reasons why people leave school have to do with young girls getting pregnant when they’re 16, 17, and then not being able to have a system to help them take care of the child. We have kids who, because of crime in the neighborhood, are afraid to go to school. Some got involved in gangs. There’s a whole panoply of reasons why kids drop out of school. Some are social, some are economic, some are family questions, some are cultural. Language is a factor.

Q: And what about college?

A: We have different populations. A lot come with insufficient preparation.We also have adults who have been out of school for a long time; they feel very out of place

Q: You have a new high school on campus.

A: Our faculty was very enthused about being part of this school. We helped design the curriculum, which focuses on American history, broadly defined. The school is doing well. The attendance rates are among the highest in the city. I was recently told that [some] freshmen are going to be competing against juniors and seniors in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates on American history. These kids know as much history as some juniors and seniors in some of the better schools in the city.

Q: What about Lehman’s partnerships with the other schools?

A: Well, we have two coming on line. One school started this year, the Bronx Arts Academy. I visited it last fall and it’s coming along fine. I think it has very good potential. We have a high school of music that will start next September. It’s a school-within-a-school at DeWitt Clinton High School. At Walton, right next door, we have a school for professionals. Juniors who want to teach shadow a teacher, and when they get to be seniors, they end up even teaching some classes. That school is going to start also in September.

Q: One thing we haven’t talked about is the Honors College, which is new at Lehman.

A: The students are very pleased with the interaction, the quality of the faculty, the facilities. We created a beautiful space for them, a lab in the library. We have our most distinguished faculty teaching in that college. I mean, they’re getting a lot of personal attention. It’s as fine an honors program as you could find in any private school.

Q: You have a Leonard Lief Endowment Campaign, with a $1 million goal, to honor your predecessor.

A: We are close to half of our goal. I expect that by 2005 we will reach our goal. It’s a fitting tribute to Leonard, who used to be the chair of the English department at Hunter before he was selected as the founding president here in 1968. He was president for 22 years, and did some wonderful things. He was responsible for the performing arts center. He was responsible for the APEX [sports center]—and, clearly, a wonderful faculty. So I think the scholarship fund is a fitting tribute.

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