COLLEGE PRESIDENTS SERIES
President Tomás Morales, College of Staten Island: A CUNY OASIS
Just a picturesque ferry ride or bridge crossing from Manhattan is a unique component of the City University of New York little known outside its home borough of Staten Island. The College of Staten Island, one of the senior colleges of the CUNY system, sprawls over 204 verdant acres and includes neo-Georgian buildings, indoor and outdoor athletic facilities, playing fields and a great lawn, an astrophysical observatory, a Center for the Arts with studios, gallery, concert halls and theater, state-of-the-art laboratories, a busy student center, a tech-enhanced library, and a High Performance Computational and Visualization Center housing the largest supercomputer at CUNY; in addition, prominently installed around the spacious campus are sixteen important commissioned works of art.
Dr. Tomás Morales, a native of the South Bronx, past provost at California State Polytechnic University, and former dean of students at City College/CUNY, has been CSI president since 2007; and, as he recently shared with Education Update in an interview in his office on campus, he is determined to get the word out about the educational opportunities available on his island campus, to “tell our story,” even as he works to strengthen the institution. He sees the chance to experience college life in New York City in a tranquil, green, park-like campus as a unique draw for urbanites.
Morales has ambitious plans for CSI. He also recognizes the challenges he faces. CSI is the product of the merger in 1976 of Staten Island Community College (a two-year program) and Richmond College (third and fourth years). As the only public college in the borough, CSI continues to offer a two-year associate degree and pledges to continue to do so as a service to the local community. However, Morales is also expanding the number of graduate and doctoral programs offered, meeting the growing needs of the community. “It is a very complex institution.” Morales notes that, in a consortium with the CUNY Graduate Center, CSI has seven doctoral programs; last year 154 doctoral students did research on his campus. Fifteen master’s and 34 baccalaureate programs are offered. To bolster academics, Morales has appointed over 72 new faculty members, saying, “We were able to attract faculty from the most prestigious post-doc programs. I would put their credentials up against those of any institution.” Based on test scores, the academic quality of incoming students is similar to that of other CUNY colleges. CSI offers three honors programs — the very prestigious Macaulay Honors College, found in seven CUNY colleges; the Verrazano School, a highly selective learning community for the highest achieving students; and the Teacher Education Honors Academy, an NSF-funded program aimed at addressing the shortage of teachers of math and science. Seen as a plus, CSI is unique as the only CUNY school to offer both doctoral and below-baccalaureate degrees. (The number of “conversions,” or students who transition from two- to four-year programs, is significant.)
Geographic isolation is another major challenge for CSI, admits Morales, and transportation options are limited on Staten Island. In a popular move in 2008, he launched a very successful shuttle service from the Staten Island Ferry to CSI for students, faculty, staff and visitors. Fifteen-hundred riders a day use this free service, and its presence makes it possible for people from all boroughs to come to the college. Morales also wants CSI to become a residential college. Currently, 100 percent of CSI students are commuters, with 75 percent hailing from Staten Island. To broaden its catchment area, raise student quality, and attract international applicants (he hopes they will increase from the current 3 percent to 10 percent of all applicants), Morales plans to break ground on new residence halls shortly. He sees the student population increasing from 13,800 to 17,000. “New York is the consummate college town,” he explains, and “CSI is an integral part of the mix.”
Morales spends time in the local community “to tell our story, to celebrate excellence on Staten Island,” and because “it is important for the college to serve the public good.” He encourages students to perform community service, such as tutoring low-performing students in local public schools in the Strategies for Success initiative, has offered full scholarships to all valedictorians and salutatorians in Staten Island public schools (seven accepted last year), and, as a booster of public education, serves as a mayoral appointee on the Panel for Educational Policy. Recognizing the prominent role it plays currently and the potential for its future, he notes that CSI is the largest single organization on Staten Island and one of its two or three largest employers.
Inspired by his mother and mentor, Elsie Maldonado, who went from high school dropout to psychiatric social worker, he has exciting visions for his growing college. Plans range from bike lanes and more plantings on campus to strong academics and an increasingly important role in the international education arena. #