COLLEGE PRESIDENTS SERIES
Nestled on an unexpectedly pastoral 37-acre campus off of Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, CUNY’s Lehman College is a study in contrasts. Boasting a 2,500-seat performing arts center, a cornfield that is home to researchers studying vitamin A deficiencies, and a prominent art gallery featuring changing exhibits of contemporary and emerging artists, the college also faces a host of problems endemic to city colleges today, including a high rate of student dropouts and “stopouts” that is of no small concern to Lehman’s twenty-year president, Dr. Ricardo Fernández.
President Ricardo Fernández, Lehman College: Making a Difference
“There are some issues that we just can’t control,” explained Fernández when Education Update interviewed him on campus, strains of music from the college’s marching band wafting over from the nearby arts center. “If our students lose a job, they can’t afford to stay in school.” Indeed, for the 9,000-plus undergraduate students who attend Lehman, more than half of whom are on financial aid and only one-third of whom graduate in four years, President Fernández is a passionate and eloquent advocate. Having overseen a groundbreaking study on Hispanic dropout trends when he was a professor of education policy at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee in the late ‘80s, he has just chaired a task force to address issues of retention and timely graduation at Lehman, and he has some ideas for change. Noting that all first-year Lehman students participate in a Freshman Year Initiative, with cohorts of 25 students taking the same courses and working collaboratively, he mused, “One of the things we don’t have is a sophomore year initiative. … We’re hemorrhaging students after freshman year. We need an early warning system.”
Key to any discussion of retention for a student body that is heavily dependent on financial aid is helping the students select a major in a timely fashion and plan their credit dispersal carefully, thereby maximizing their tuition assistance (limited to eight semesters of coverage). The college is also looking to beef up its full-time faculty and thus its student advising and mentoring capabilities; although half of all classes are currently taught by adjuncts, 70 new full-time faculty members have been hired over the past five years: “We want to provide a quality education to our students,” concluded Fernández.
Having grown up in Puerto Rico, Fernández knows what it’s like to make a sacrifice for education. Although he was offered an opportunity to play baseball in the farm system after high school, he instead opted to attend Marquette University in Wisconsin, which did not even have a baseball team, because he felt it offered him the best academic program. Fernández later went on to obtain both his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and a master’s in Spanish from Marquette, followed by a doctorate in Romance languages and literatures from Princeton University (he credits reading Homer’s The Iliad back in middle school with his lifelong appreciation for Romance languages).
Now that he has made a home for himself at Lehman College, Fernández has embarked on some exciting long-range planning. “In twenty to thirty years, I believe every American student will be encouraged to have an international experience,” he asserted, highlighting Lehman’s collaboration with a private university in Korea to provide a successful dual degree program in nursing. As a result of this success, other countries, including India and the Dominican Republic, have also initiated inquiries about collaborating with Lehman. He’s also interested in expanding distance educational offerings. Currently Lehman offers an online degree program in nursing; Fernández is looking to add education and maybe sociology to that roster. “These [online] programs require a lot of discipline. They’re not for everybody. Yet they are also a nice way to complement credit acquisition, … and for a student to get closer and faster to a degree,” he said. And his graduate programs are distinguishing themselves internationally: state of the art science laboratories house groundbreaking research in wide-ranging areas from cancer treatment using plant compounds to calcium’s role in schizophrenia. Fernández himself just returned from the Brazilian Amazon with a group that included researchers from the Bronx Botanical Gardens, with which Lehman has a strong collaborative effort (there are some 55 Lehman Ph.D. students in plant sciences).
With Ricardo Fernández at the helm, it’s clear that Lehman College will continue to seek ways of meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student population (currently over 90 nationalities are represented on campus) while maintaining and expanding a strong educational program. “I’d like Lehman to become the college of choice for a greater number of students in the Bronx and lower Westchester,” he concluded forcefully, leaving no doubt that he will accomplish all this and more during his presidency. #