When Dr. Kathleen Waldron was a finalist in the selection process for president of William Paterson University five years ago, she did something unusual. Before her interview, she walked over to the student commons of this Wayne, New Jersey school and remained there for several hours observing student interactions. She was pleasantly surprised.
“I wanted to see what the dynamic among students was at this diverse public institution,” Waldron said. She had been to other universities where students remained in their subgroups despite being a part of a multiethnic university but saw the opposite behavior at William Paterson. “I knew that they and the school embraced diversity. Students inter-mingled and interacted with each other in a way that I appreciated. I believe this is part of what makes public universities rich.”
A Strong Focus on Latinos
Today, as president of William Paterson University (WP), an 11,500-student school, Waldron can be proud of having supported this legacy of diversity and for being at the helm of a school that now has officially become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI).
“We were excited about this designation. We can now apply for federal grants we weren’t able to apply for before. Most universities don’t have this kind of mix,” she said. “We have an additional responsibility as an HSI. When we knew that 25 percent of our campus would be Latino, we made sure we had counselors who could communicate to students and parents about financial aid and other matters. We also started translating letters to parents and financial aid information into both languages.”
A Perfect Fit
Given her background and connection to Latino culture and history, Waldron seems a perfect fit for a HSI university. She obtained her Ph.D. in Latin American History at Indiana University in 1977. During her graduate studies, she traveled extensively to Venezuela for her dissertation research and spent up to five years there in addition to her time in Mexico and Colombia.
Although Waldron began her career in education as an assistant professor at Bowdoin College in Maine, she started pursuing a career in banking in 1981. At Chemical Bank, she worked on Argentinean portfolios. At Citibank, she served as president of Citibank International Florida, where she headed the Latin American Private Banking division until 1998.
“I worked with diverse colleagues at Citibank and was traveling a lot to Latin America. I also lived in Miami where everyone was Latino,” she said. “My language ability helped me be accepted, and I also knew the history of my client’s countries.”
When Waldron returned to academia in 1998 as dean of the School of Business, Public Administration and Information Science at Long Island University, she brought with her three important sets of skills: strong management abilities, financial know-how and the capacity to work with diverse groups of people, especially Latinos. In 2004, she carried this expertise with her as president of Baruch College, a City University of New York (CUNY) school that was named the most ethnically-diverse campus in the nation by U.S. News and World Report and the Princeton Review.
Waldron was also able to utilize her unique background at William Paterson University when she became president in 2010. Within her first year, she established the Tinker Foundation Lecture Series on Latin American History. She invited community members and leaders of different ethnic groups as well as students and faculty, to talks on current events in Latin America. That year, she also brought the then-president of La República Dominicana, Leonel Fernandez, to campus where 900 students, faculty and community members filled the auditorium.
“Faculty really took notice, and the community that came looked at the university differently after that,” Waldron said. “It underscored that the Latino community would be important at the university because it was a skill set I as president had and was going to use.”
Improving Education for All
Being able to meet the needs of Latinos and a host of diverse students on campus was part of Waldron’s vision when she became president five years ago. Given that many students juggle jobs and family responsibilities while attending school and had low retention and graduation rates, she had her work cut out for her. Now, the school has 25.1 percent Latinos, 13.4 percent African Americans and 6.6 percent Asians.
Waldron started by increasing part-time jobs on campus, so commuting to work didn’t take away from schoolwork. She created a free summer basic skills program that would prepare those students who would otherwise normally pay for remedial courses in their freshman year. Waldron also increased academic support, amplifying activities at tutoring centers and revising the first-year student experience. In addition, she created more robust career planning, maintained annual tuition hikes below two percent (much lower than most schools) and improved an Early Alert System that lets WP’s diverse and first-rate faculty know when students need help.
Realizing that students who graduate in four years financially save on their education, Waldron also began offering a $1,000 scholarship to anyone who finished their freshman year with 30 credits and a GPA of 3.0 or more. This continued for their subsequent years. “This was a big experiment, and we think it’s working,” she said. (Latinos, for example, increased graduation rates in four years by 12.6 percent for the 2007 cohort).
Waldron has been intent on increasing full time faculty and money for scholarships while further narrowing the gap in graduation and retention rates between minority and Caucasian students. She will also pursue grants under the school’s new HSI status.
Whether her goals are intended for Latinos or not, though, Latinos, as the largest minority group on campus, are likely to benefit. “I think we will continue to see Latinos coming to our university. Many of them come from community colleges and see us as a friendly and welcoming place,” Waldron said. She also recently added a Latina, Lourdes Cortez, president and CEO of North Jersey Federal Credit Union, to her board of trustees. “We keep an eye on students and help them succeed.”