Someone once paraphrased Albert Einstein saying, “Education is not teaching students what to think, but how to think.” Nelson Mandela went further and said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Few individuals have impacted the educational environment in Central Florida by implementing these principles like Dr. Rita Bornstein. She was the president of Rollins College from 1990 to 2004, a relationship she continues as the president emerita and the George D. and Harriet W. Cornell professor of philanthropy and leadership development. Under Dr. Bornstein’s guidance, the college not only flourished with the most aggressive building and beautification program in its history, it also climbed from being the No. 6 regional university in the south, to No. 1 in 2004, according to U.S. News and World Report.
It may come as a surprise to many that Dr. Bornstein pursued her dream of higher education after she was the mother of two;
once she engaged in the process, her climb was phenomenal.
Setting Her Course
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I began, that more or less evolved; but I loved to read and wandered into English literature,” she reflected. It has been a love and base of knowledge that has served her well, as she is the author of countless articles and a shelf full of books. After graduate school, she felt she needed to be practical and considered pursuing law or perhaps a doctorate in psychology, but earned her Ph.D. in educational leadership at the University of Miami (UM), because that was a passion which was beginning to grow. “I still love to teach; in fact teaching is the most important gift, I believe, an individual can give to society,” Bornstein said. “It is a gift to educate the future generation …
I was called to it.”
It was a calling that she fulfilled more as an administrator than as a classroom instructor. After serving as a teacher and administrator in an innovative public school, she went back to UM where she wrote two large federal grants, both of which were funded. One of them was to implement Title IX, which is primarily remembered for the impact it had on providing equality for women in high school and college athletics. “If you think it was easy for a woman who grew up in New York and happened to be Jewish to travel to Mississippi and Alabama to tell coaches, principals and parents why Title IX would be good for them…well, they thought I was nuts. But if you can do that job, you can do anything! It was actually exciting.”
Moving to the Presidency
Armed with the experience of leading and managing a large workforce, Bornstein was advised that the field of development was opening up for women in higher education. So, she went back to the University of Miami and was offered the job as the director of foundation and corporate relations. Again her leadership, people skills and the fact, as she put it, “I was born organized,” propelled her, within three years, to being vice president of the development division of the university. She actually exceeded her goals, leading the second most ambitious fundraising campaign in the entire country.
Perhaps, most importantly, in this role she got to know Charlie Rice, then head of Barnett Bank, who was on the board of both UM and Rollins and was on the search committee for Rollins’ new president. Though Bornstein had an untraditional academic career – “I didn’t take the royal road of professor, dean, provost, president,” Bornstein said – it was a route that gave her a wider perspective and larger skill sets that Rice and others saw as ideal for Rollins.
Looking back, Bornstein said, “I’ve realized that over the years I have had some incredible mentors, even though I didn’t call them that at the time. When I was asked to help lead that new public school, with no experience, I didn’t think I had the credibility, but the principal told me, ‘That’s up to you. You can do it.’ At Miami, the president said to me, ‘You can do this.’ Then Charlie Rice came along. I realized those experiences shaped me, and now I like fulfilling that role of mentor and motivator for others.”
For Rollins, her ability, courage, diplomacy and determination would be an unbeatable combination. “I’ve never said ‘No’ to any opportunity,” Bornstein conceded, and she has created opportunities at Rollins for more endowed professorial chairs, scholarship funding, building projects, while also raising its academic standards. Dr. Rita Bornstein has built an educational legacy, both locally and nationally, that will shape students and their communities for years to come.