This month I have the pleasure of introducing our readers to Dr. Marcia Keizs, president of City University of New York–York College. A native of Kingston, Jamaica, Dr. Keizs has been at the helm of York College since 2005 and is one of only two black women presidents in the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Since her tenure, York College has seen overall enrollment increase by 25% and an unprecedented 61% increase in incoming student matriculation throughout a five-year period. In addition, Dr. Keizs is an English major, with a BA from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and an MA and EdD from Teachers College at Columbia University NY. Below is our interview, edited for brevity and clarity.
Describe your job in one sentence
As president of York College, first and foremost I lead the college in its definition of its mission, vision and values; I also lead the team that will develop and execute the programs that fulfill them.
What do you like most about your job?
The opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the leaders of the future. I am an active mentor to students.
What is the most misunderstood thing about what you do?
Very often people believe that “the president can do anything.” For instance, students may come to me in an attempt to change an unfavorable grade. More often than not, I refer that situation back to the original source, namely, the faculty.
How did you get to your current position?
I was contacted when I was provost at Bronx Community College. Prior to that, I had held leadership positions throughout the City University of New York (CUNY), including a stint as acting president of York College in the mid-1990s. I also believe that the doors opened by the Civil Rights Movement, the Women Rights Movement, and many mentors along my path all made my particular career path possible.
Tell readers a bit about projects you are currently working on
The big project is a new building: a 165,000-square-foot academic village and conference center that we are working toward. It will be anchored by our School of Business and Information Systems; it will host the front door to the college (the Admissions, Financial Aid and Registrar’s Office); it will provide office and lounge spaces for students; it will house a conference center and exhibit space. We are also excited to have been designated a Start-Up New York (tax-free) zone by Governor Andrew Cuomo. This will attract new business to the community and the college campus.
What are some of the challenges you face in your job?
A major challenge for us is funding support. While our major sponsor, the state of New York, has been steady and our Trustees have approved modest tuition increases with affordability as the key, additional funding is needed to provide students with the bonus opportunities like study abroad, undergraduate research, and support for internships. These opportunities give our students a competitive edge when they move into the job market. It is my job as president to identify external non–tax levy funding from alumni, corporations, and other benefactors to support these efforts.
What is your strongest skill in your current position?
I select and manage people well and communicate early and often. I tend to anticipate what the challenges and opportunities may be and try to get ahead of them.
Any special risks you took along the way, and how did they turn out?
Risks are an inherent part of any job or career. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. I wouldn’t call them special risks. But whenever you leave one position for another, or one college for another, you take a risk. In all instances I learned something. By taking the risk, going to a new place and learning from it, I was able to build on my strengths.
Do you have a particular role model/mentor? What makes them great, in your eyes?
My early English teachers in Jamaica, West Indies, were crucial in my desire to be an educator. They were tough but fair, and as a high school student I looked up to them as examples of what a solid career could be. They were change agents for future generations. A more recent mentor is Dr. Carolyn Williams, President Emerita of Bronx Community College.
What is the worst advice you have received along the way?
To stay at one college rather than accept a challenge at another institution within the system. I weighed the advice, ignored it, and took the opportunity and learned from it—even though the situation was not ideal.
What are some goals you have for this year?
For this year and the foreseeable future, we are building on the strong undergraduate foundations to the masters level with several niche programs (e.g., health sciences and business). We are focused on continuing to strengthen our financial position. That continues to be a goal.
What skills do you think women in higher education need to succeed?
All the skills that men have and then some! You have to know the academy and how it works. You need to be a good negotiator. You need to understand the financial operation. It helps to love what you’re doing.
What advice might you have for women in higher education?
Operate from a core belief system. Integrity is important.
If you could give our readers some advice, how could they make a change for women in higher education?
One of the big problems for women is we’re typecast into certain positions in the academy. My advice, therefore, is to take on jobs early in your career that may run against type. For instance, data management, financial forecasting, facilities, enrollment management and the like.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
At York College we are so proud of our students and their faculty mentors who every day demonstrate what is possible when you engage fully. One such example is Robert Fernandez, who came to York to take advantage of our world-class biotechnology program. Robert’s “undocumented” immigration status meant he could not receive scholarships to fund his education. This did not stop him. He took on up to three campus jobs to fund his education and living expenses. He was mentored by Dr. Anne Simon and engaged in cutting-edge research in her lab, which led to a summer internship at Princeton University. Robert graduated in spring 2013 and is now in a doctoral program at Yale University where he will conduct research on neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. And by the way, he is now a permanent resident.
Dr. Keizs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 718-262-2350
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Silva-Ford, Liana. (2014, April). WIHE Interviews: Dr. Marcia Keizs. Women in Higher Education, 23(4), 14-15.