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New York City
December 2002

College President Series
Dr. Marlene Springer, President, College of Staten Island
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Colleges may be scooping up corporate heads for their presidencies but for the last eight years at The College of Staten Island (CSI) the CEO has been a Ph.D. in English Literature, who has an MA in American Literature and an additional specialty in women’s studies from Indiana University, Bloomington. The record also shows an impressive list of scholarly publications and an extensive history of teaching and administration in the academic world here and abroad, including positions as vice chancellor for academic affairs and graduate studies, associate dean, chair of department, and service on national education commissions and memberships on numerous and prestigious international, national and regional boards, councils and committees.

Has this solid intellectual and academic background played a significant part in Dr. Marlene Springer’s achievements at CSI? The response is firm and focused, softened by a still discernible Southern drawl and by a fast sense of humor. In fact, she points out, with a lilt in her voice, when she was an undergraduate at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, she complemented her English major with a minor in Business Administration. Later on, when she decided that being head of a college was more important to her than becoming president of Coca Cola, she took a “crash” course in administration as a fellow at the University of Kansas where, among other mentors in her life, she met Gene Budig, who left as Chancellor of the University of Kansas to take up the leadership of the American League. She admires that kind of wide reach.

There is also, of course, the simple fact of mettle: Marlene Springer has spent a lifetime exercising independence in pursuit of convictions. A stint in India when she was but 20 years old, on a Rotarian fellowship, brought her to Calcutta all alone, prepared to study Indian philosophy. She chuckles, recalling the actual “practice” behind the “theory” of her visit: “everyone was on strike,” and thus she spent a lot of time (“life changing experience”) joining in celebrations for various Muslim and Hindu holidays, and at one point, wound up working with Mother Theresa. This broad international perspective has obviously served President Springer well in advancing programs at CSI that stress excellence and diversity.

She will not be drawn into any one else’s curriculum vitae packaging. More than her research and scholarship, more than her administrative experience, Marlene Springer credits as her “most valuable” preparation for the presidency of a comprehensive institution that awards degrees at the associate, bachelors, Masters and Ph.D. level the fact that she moved up through the ranks, at both smaller colleges and research institutions. She has served “in every faculty position, from part-time lecturer to visiting professor abroad.” To have been a faculty person gives her, she says, insider appreciation of promotions and tenure, not to mention credence among all professorial ranks. In a forthcoming textbook, Pathways to the Presidency, she reflects on her experience and views. Significantly, the book will make its first appearance in China, where CSI has a strong teacher-exchange program, particularly in the teaching of English as a second language. In fact, CSI is the flagship school in CUNY for international programs. The President pauses to note that she just got back one and a half days ago [!] from Vietnam, where she was lecturing.

Though she says the idea of finding a perfect “fit” between president and college is a “myth,” it would seem that in selecting this strong, independent woman to lead CSI the CUNY Board of Trustees put in charge a unique person for a unique place. CSI is the only public institution of higher education in a borough of 450,000 (approximately 75-78% of the student body is from Staten Island, 2,000-3,000 from Brooklyn, with a smattering of brave souls who come from the Bronx, traveling three hours each way). CSI is also the only college in the CUNY system that has been virtually rebuilt on the grounds (and infamous reputation) of Willowbrook, thus allowing for various program emphases, particularly undergraduate research in the sciences, to enjoy significant space on the college’s beautiful 204 acres. Dr. Springer’s flawless articulation of ideas and examples suddenly takes enthusiastic flight. She is delighted at the million-dollar microscopes, the science labs.

CSI is also unique, she adds, in its having had relative success in merging the upper-degree experimental college it used to be under the name of Richmond with the needs of an open-admissions community college. CSI faculty in both divisions now are promoted and granted tenure according to the same criteria; outdated associate-degree programs have been dropped; new articulation agreements strengthened; and the college’s largest major—teacher education, “600 teachers a year”—is thus served with a strong liberal arts base. Standards are up, she points out, placement scores higher, with a greater number of students graduating. Retention, a nation-wide concern, is being aggressively addressed.

Although Dr. Springer jokes about having good “pinnacle days” she has obviously been enjoying a pinnacle professional life. It was just a couple of weeks ago that she ended her tenure on the Mayor’s City Charter Revision panel, having been surprised at being appointed and then being made vice chair (“I think I was the least politically connected,” she modestly avers). The panel went out of business after the election and the Mayor has not yet signaled reappointments. Surely her expressed desire to collaborate with her fellow panel members, who included among others Herman Badillo and Judah Gribetz, to recommend “a roadmap for legislators to bring our great city into the 21st Century,” reflected some of the mental and real-world traveling she has done all her life.#

City: State:

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