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Eugenio María de Hostos Community College’s longtime president Dolores Fernández reflects on her journey through academia and helping other Hispanics reach the top.

In 1998, Dr. Dolores Fernández was exactly where she wanted to be as a tenured, full-time professor at Hunter College, the largest in the City University of New York system. Then she got a call asking her to leave Manhattan and take the helm of Eugenio María de Hostos Community College, CUNY’s troubled bilingual community college in the South Bronx.

“I said, ‘No,’” she recalls. “I wasn’t about to leave Hunter.” CUNY’s chancellor called her to his office to try to change her mind, but it was a Black History Month speech at Hunter that made the difference. A Black minister from the Bronx looked at the comfortable academics and challenged them: Look at your communities. Do the people living there now have the same advantages you had? “I started crying,” Fernández says. “I said, ‘I’ve got to go upstairs and call the chancellor.’ I said, ‘I’ve got to go do this for an interim basis.’”

More than 10 years later — nine of them as Hostos’ permanent president — Fernández, 64, has announced she’ll step down once a replacement is named. In her resignation letter she cited a tenure of academic and financial improvements and beefed-up enrollment. Her efforts were, as she said in her letter, “my opportunity to ‘pay back’ my community.”

‘Not College Material’

The South Bronx community that is home to Hostos and its predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican student population isn’t precisely her own, although she lives in the Bronx today. She was reared in Astoria, Queens, to a mother who emigrated from Spain and a father who came to New York from Cuba. But like many Hostos students, Fernández entered public school speaking only Spanish. Hostos accepts any high-school graduate, English-speaking or not. And, like many Hostos students, she came to higher education later in life.

An honor-roll student in high school, she graduated 10th in a class of 600. Her SAT score, however, was not as impressive. She took the exam as her father lay dying in a hospital.

“I got married right out of high school because I was told I wasn’t college material by a guidance counselor,” Fernández says.

At 26, with a two-year-old and a five-year-old at home, she enrolled in Nassau Community College and after three years of night classes earned her associate degree. By then a mother of three, Fernández decided to pursue a bachelor’s in bilingual education. Fourteen years later, she earned a doctoral degree from Hosftra University.

“I remember walking across the stage that day and thinking … I would have really liked to have the guidance counselor that told me that I couldn’t do it [be] there, to really just show this person, ‘You didn’t really evaluate this person, giving this person full credit.’ I worry lots of times about if that’s still going on.”

At Hostos Community College, offering disadvantaged people a chance at a higher education — despite challenges that elsewhere would keep them out — is a way of life. Nearly 60 percent of its students work. One-third have children. They come from the poorest congressional district in the state.

When she took over as interim president, Hostos faced potential closure. Its prior president resigned after she was accused of allowing students to graduate without being able to read or write English.

She came in vowing that every graduate would pass the English- language exam. The exam has since changed and students have more time to take it. But Fernández, a big believer in bilingual education, also shook up Hostos’ bilingual approach to try to save it.

She angered some in the English Department by splitting off about half its faculty into a new Language and Cognition Department whose focus was teaching English as a second language. Hostos’ enrollment is 97 percent minority: mostly Hispanic (58 percent) and Black (32 percent). More than half the students were born outside the United States.

The change still gets mixed reactions today from the faculty. Dr. Robert Cohen, chair of the Language and Cognition.

Department, came to Hostos a year after the change and says Fernández “has been very supportive of the workings of the department,” which he believes has been strengthened during her tenure.

“We’re still striving,” he says. “I’m not saying that we have become the primal force, but there is a lot of potential there.”

English Department Chair Diana Díaz, who was a senior professor in the department when Fernández split it, says: “The jury’s still out on the result.” Dr. Hector López, chair of Hostos’ business department and its College Senate, called Fernández’ arrival “a breath of fresh air.”

“You speak with different folks, you’ll get different points of view. If you look at the consensus, you look at someone who’s done great for Hostos. The whole image of the institution changed in a positive manner,” says López.

The New York Times reported that the pass rate for the writing exam was 9 percent when Fernández first took over as president. According Hostos Director of Institutional Research Richard D. Gampert, the passing rate for the exam that replaced the CUNY writing exam was 44.5 percent last year. Students who take a remedial writing course are required to take the test. The highest passage rate during Fernández’ tenure came in 2004, when 46.7 percent of those students passed.

Fernández points to other changes in her tenure: A grueling joint program with Columbia University to prepare Hostos students for diplomatic careers through the Ivy League school’s international and public affairs program, a similar program with the City College of New York that prepares Hostos students for engineering careers, and a successful athletic program.

Reaching Back

Fernández says she also made a personal goal of helping minority administrators advance their careers.

She cites, as examples, two administrators she hired, whom she regularly sent to leadership programs at Harvard University and elsewhere. Dr. Ben Corpus, her former vice president for student development and enrollment management, was promoted in 2005 to a similar post at four-year Baruch College. And Dr. Daisy De Filippis, her provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, this year became president of Naugatuck Valley Community College in Connecticut.

Díaz, the English department professor critical of the department split engineered by Fernández, praises the president for those hires. “The college achieved a stability and a sense of purpose that it didn’t have before. She chose people that would bring this about.”

Corpus said Fernández fully backed and funded his efforts to boost enrollment — and to establish an athletic program at Hostos.

“She encouraged it with resources and priorities,” says Corpus, who was especially grateful when Fernández nominated him for a leadership fellowship with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. “There were only 10 selected from the country. That experience was an outstanding one. I was very appreciative of Dolores for sending me there.”

College presidencies still are elusive to Hispanics. The American Council on Education’s most recent profile of minority presidents showed that while Hispanics have greatly increased their share of those posts over the past two decades, they still held a miniscule amount of the presidencies in 2006. That year, just 4.5 percent of the 2,148 presidents who completed the ACE survey were Hispanic.

The odds are better at Hispanic-serving institutions, like Hostos Community College. But the numbers are still small enough that Fernández, when asked to offer advice to Hispanics seeking to break into academia’s upper echelons, prefers to offer more of it to those who already have.

“For those of us who are sitting in these positions, that should be our commitment to everyone coming up the ranks,” Fernández says. “To really turn around and extend your hand and pull that next person through the eye of the needle. If we haven’t done that, we’re failing ourselves.”

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