Greeting me with a smile and a handshake, Dr. Miguel Martinez-Saenz, the newly selected president of St. Francis College makes a positive and memorable first impression. From his distinguishable Cuban accent to his ability to make you laugh, he emits a charismatic and relatable personality fit for leadership of St. Francis College’s dynamic academic environment.
Dr. Martinez-Saenz began his tenure last month after a highly competitive search to become the 19th President in the College’s 160 year history. He succeeded Interim President Timothy J. Houlihan who filled the position after the death of Brendan J. Dugan (SFC Class of ’68) in December of 2016.
Dr. Martinez-Saenz comes to Brooklyn Heights from Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio where he was the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.
Martinez-Saenz said a host of factors originally drew him to taking the reins at St. Francis including the idea of serving students and having the college become a national model of community formation. He believes that St. Francis College and Brooklyn has the ability to cross cultural, class, economic, and sexual orientation barriers in a political climate teeming with divisiveness.
“It’s an incredible opportunity we have to resist the [divisive] rhetoric [coming out of Washington]. We are living examples of what it means to live with the ‘other’. What we do here at St. Francis is get into the community. We aren’t a community college, but we are a college in the community,” said Martinez-Saenz.
Just a month into his presidency, Martinez-Saenz is already feeling a shift toward a more student centered administration. In his tenure thus far, he has been working toward making himself an accessible president, and St. Francis an even more welcoming environment.
“Everyday I spend some time talking to students. There are very few places where the president is talking to students on a daily basis, which does a couple of things. It makes me accessible and I need to be accessible to hear what the students are experiencing,” he said.
Martinez-Saenz went on to note that his acknowledgement principle also extends to every single worker on the St. Francis campus including janitors, cafeteria workers and everyone in between. This includes taking the time to visit cafeteria workers on a daily basis. He does this both to show his appreciation for their work and to set an example for the students about the importance of acknowledging everybody at the college.
This principle even extends to former students. During his first week as president, Martinez-Saenz had a chance encounter with a former student who had an unfortunate tale about being forced to leave the college due to financial difficulties. Martinez-Saenz, took the encounter as an opportunity to start making fundamental changes at the historical institution, and within the following three days was able to assist that former student in getting connected with the college’s financial aid department, and getting them back on track toward completing a college education.
“What does it mean to be student centered? It means that a student doesn’t fall through the cracks. That we know about a student before they fall through the cracks,” he said.
The Florida native and Cuban-American also believes that his high profile status gives him the opportunity to highlight community involvement in the least likely of places.
“How do I begin to understand community. For me that is a critical piece. Next week, I’m going to go teach at a federal prison. I have taught at prisons a great deal. And you know people wonder why I teach at prisons when I’m the president. And that’s precisely when I need to do it,” said Martinez-Saenz.
The first-time president hopes to use his background in philosophy to make the best decisions for his student body. That includes drawing on the Principle of Subsidiarity, an organizing principle that states that decision-making should take place at the level where the decision has the most impact.
“If you’re going to serve you have to attend to who you’re engaging. We’re too distant from the students and from the community because we grow a little too enamored with being administrators. The decision-making should take place where the decision has the most impact. The further you’re removed the more likely it is that you will make a bad decision. What’s critical is that you have to get proximate because if you’re not, you’re going to have a tough time,” said Martinez-Saenz.
Additionally, Martinez-Saenz hopes that through his work he can bring success to all of the students who pass through St. Francis’ doors.
“Part of my burden is to create successful conditions. In administration you have to think either you’re creating conditions for folks to be successful or you’re creating conditions for them to succeed in spite of you,” he said.
Though Martinez-Saenz fell into administration by chance, he quickly came to realize early in his career that serving came naturally to him. Now a seasoned veteran, he calls his work the “the greatest job on the planet.” The month-old president went on to state his deep commitment to serving students by citing a personal passage from his Cuban background, a small phrase taken from a book written by his own grandfather, For The Economic Independence of Cuba by Joaquin Martinez Saenz.
“I’ve always had this disposition. What he articulated in his book was a commitment, ‘To the least of these,’ that resonated with me. So in some sense it feels to me that I am carrying that legacy. Was he Cuban, yes. Am I Cuban-American, yes. He beautifully articulated his sense of humanity, and so that’s my drive.”