College President Tackles Student Persistence, Campus Expansion - Higher Education
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College President Tackles Student Persistence, Campus Expansion

by Jamal Eric Watson

Dr. Carlos Hernández has spent his entire career in higher education at New Jersey City University.

And that doesn’t bother him one bit.

Hernández joined the faculty at NJCU—then Jersey City State College—as a professor of psychology in 1972. Over the last 17 years as president, he has shepherded the largely commuter school of about 10,000 students through some monumental changes, including the achievement of university status and an increase in the number of minority students—specifically Latinos by 52.2 percent—on the urban campus.

At a time when most college presidents stay on the job for just a few years, Hernández’s tenure at NJCU is unusual. “I think it was just the fortuitous circumstances of finding an institution that reflects my own belief system,” says Hernández, 60, one of just a handful of Latino college presidents in the nation. “We have become much more global and international in our thinking and we are expanding upon the diversity of our students, faculty and staff.”

Helping more students persist to graduation at Hispanic-serving NJCU is a priority for Hernández. While the school’s first-time student retention rate is 72 percent, its graduation rate is slightly under 40 percent.

“We are faring pretty well with our first- and second-year students, but what we are doing is not good enough,” he says. “We are always looking to lead initiatives to ensure that students of color and underprepared students have all the services they need not just to enroll but succeed through graduation.”

Growing up in Queens, N.Y., Hernández never envisioned becoming president of one of New Jersey’s fastest-growing colleges.

“I was a first-generation college student, and I thought I was going to be a policeman or go into the service. That’s what everyone I knew did,” he says. “It was not until my senior year of college that I was confronted with what to do with my life.” A professor encouraged Hernández to consider graduate school and that decision led him into the academy.

Hernández says he’s frustrated by the dearth of Latinos in administrative and faculty positions. He says it’s essential to get talented Latinos in the pipeline for future careers in the academy. He has served as a mentor for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Millennium Leadership Initiative, a leadership development program that provides underrepresented individuals the opportunity to develop skills, gain a philosophical overview and build the network needed to advance to the presidency.

NJCU faculty have lauded Hernández for expanding the campus infrastructure and spearheading new academic programs, like the development of the school’s first doctoral program in cyberspace security. The university is in the beginning stages of implementing a $500 million master plan, which includes developing a 23-acre site two blocks from the main campus into a mixed-use academic and cultural space with retail stores.

Amid tough economic times, the challenge for Hernández is building on the university’s traditions with limited funds. Like most public colleges and universities across New Jersey, NJCU has encountered budget cuts. The state trimmed $173 million from public colleges and universities for the 2010-2011 school year, resulting in a 4-percent tuition increase at NJCU. Hernández is also contemplating what’s next for him because he realizes his career as a college president may come to an end in the near future.

“It’s important to know when it’s time to turn the leadership over,” he says. “I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this because I am not going to do this forever. I know what I want this university to be, and my goal is to get as much accomplished while I am here.”

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