A 22-year Transformation

Dr. Modesto Maidique reflects on the evolution he has shepherded Florida International University through as he prepares to leave his post as president after 22 years.

When Dr. Modesto “Mitch” Maidique was tapped to be president of Florida International University in 1986, the public commuter school in Miami- Dade County wasn’t much of a head-turner. It had 15,000 students and offered eight doctoral degree programs. The young university, which opened its doors in 1972, had a $3 million endowment by 1986 and was spending just $6 million a year on research.

But the ever-ambitious Maidique had plans to remake the university. Big plans.

Today, as the Cuban-born president prepares to step down after a 22-year tenure, he presides over an institution that now offers 30 doctoral degrees; more master’s degree programs (89) than undergraduate programs; and a law school that he lobbied for throughout much of his presidency. Furthermore, this fall, 40 students — from more than 3,000 applicants — will become FIU’s first class at its new medical school.

FIU spends about $110 million annually on research today.

“That growth in research expenditures is extraordinary,” says David Shulenburger, vice president for academic affairs at the National Association of State Universities and Land- Grant Colleges.

“It really means they’ve gone from not being a research university to being among the 100 or so research universities that are making a real difference in the country.” That makes the university a rarity as a Hispanic- serving institution (HSI) — those with student enrollments that are 25 percent or more Hispanic. FIU’s enrollment is 59 percent Hispanic, and it is the nation’s top producer of Hispanic baccalaureate and master’s degree recipients. It is one of just 12 HSIs nationwide that are research institutions, according to John Moder, chief operating officer for the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

Maidique, who turns 69 in March, says that it’s good to step down when things are going well. He’ll do so once a new president is named. The search committee began its work this month.

“One of the rules of ending your career is you should end it on the right note,” Maidique tells Diverse. He announced his plan to resign after what he has called “heartbreaking” rounds of $37 million in budget cuts that will eliminate 20 degree programs at FIU.

“The budget, I have no control over. For what I do have control over, which is the university itself, 2008 was a banner year.”

As proof, Maidique points to three milestones reached at FIU in 2008: The graduation of 100 doctoral students and more than $100 million in sponsored research in a single year. Plus, FIU’s endowment surpassed $100 million.

The Good and the Bad

But success always comes with some setbacks.

A low point for the university, says Maidique, was a federal challenge regarding research grants at FIU’s most profitable research hub, its Hemispheric Center for Environmental Technology (HCET). In 2005, FIU agreed to pay $11.5 million to settle what the federal government said were improper costs and overbilling for grants at the center between 1995 and 2003.

And in 2008, which Maidique calls FIU’s “pinnacle” year, he also faced controversy.

In July, a Miami-Dade jury decided that race played “a substantial or motivating factor” in FIU’s decision to fire African-American employee Sean St. Louis, a former FIU associate controller of contracts. St. Louis’ predominantly Black department was reorganized in the wake of the federal audits of the HCET. His lawyer, Erika Deutsch Rotbart, says St. Louis had raised concerns about HCET spending and testified after the federal government subpoenaed him. St. Louis and most of the Black employees in the department reapplied for jobs elsewhere at FIU, but weren’t rehired, she says.

The jury awarded St. Louis $2.5 million. A similar case brought by five other Black employees in St. Louis’ department has been settled “to their satisfaction,” Rotbart says.

“The discrimination to which St. Louis was subjected to during the course of his employment is part of a pattern and practice of discrimination against defendant FIU’s Black employees,” the complaint stated.

Maidique flatly denies that FIU discriminated. “We’re appealing it,” he says of the verdict for St. Louis.

“We think there’s no basis for the case. We are exactly the antithesis of discrimination. To say that FIU discriminates is hilarious.”

In Miami-Dade, where the Census estimates that Blacks represent 18 percent of the population, 6 percent of the faculty and 12 percent of FIU’s other employees are Black. Hispanics, estimated to be about 61 percent of the county population, represent 16 percent of FIU faculty and 58 percent of employees. The student body is more reflective of the county’s diversity, at 13 percent Black and 59 percent Hispanic.

Diversity has always been part of FIU’s history since it welcomed its first class in 1972.

Carmen Alvarez Brown, now vice president for enrollment management at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, was one of FIU’s first students. She also worked full time as a clerk in the admissions office.

For Brown, FIU’s opening in a single building on an abandoned airstrip was a boon for the growing numbers of Cuban exile families like her own. Many couldn’t afford tuition at the private University of Miami, so they attended Miami-Dade Community College before transferring, often heading north to Florida’s public flagships — the University of Florida and Florida State University. Brown says the daughters of Cuban exiles often remained closer to home.

“It affected more females than males, because in our culture, parents were more willing to let the males go to outside universities in Florida, but the females were more homebound,” says Brown, who earned a bachelor’s in psychology and later a master’s in adult education while working her way up the administrative ranks at FIU.

A few years after Maidique became president, Brown became director of admissions.

She was there throughout Maidique’s 16- year lobbying of the Legislature to get a law school for FIU.

Says Brown of the struggles at the state capitol: “Tallahassee, back in those days, felt that Miami was another country because of the amount of diversity that Miami had. Most legislators were graduates of the University of Florida and Florida State. They didn’t care about Miami and the community. Mitch Maidique fought for the law school. He fought for the medical school.”

The law school was indeed part of Maidique’s well-laid plan to ensure FIU’s future.

Gaining Legal Footing

“The law school is an organization for a school that magnifies in a major way the leverage that a university has over its future,” Maidique says. “It was very clear. By providing opportunities to our young men and women to graduate in their community with a law degree that, in time, would translate itself into better-trained, more effective legislators that would represent our community and would … improve the quality of the university.”

Adds Maidique: “We’ve only graduated two or three classes, but you wait around 10 years or so and you’ll see graduates of our law school in the Legislature.”

Maidique owes his political deftness to his family.

His father and namesake in Cuba was a city councilman, a congressman and a senator. When Maidique was 11 months old, his father was assassinated shortly after winning a congressional seat in an upset.

“Had I lived in Cuba, I think I would have been involved in politics,” he says.

But at 18, Maidique came to the United States to study and earn four degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including a doctorate in solid state electronics. He founded an electronics company, Analog Devices, Inc., and taught on the faculties of Harvard University, MIT and Stanford University. When the FIU opportunity arose in 1986, he looked at it as a way to give back to the country that had educated him and to the Cuban American community in Miami. He dreamed of transforming the commuter university into a major research institution.

“That was very important because there was no public university of that stature in South Florida that would provide opportunities to people in this community, many of which were part of my ethnic group,” Maidique says.

“I wanted to have an impact.

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