By Randy Noles
Rita Bornstein, the “shy little girl” who would make history at Rollins College, and her younger brother Arnold near their home in Queens. Photo courtesy of Rita Bornstein; photo restoration by Will Setzer at Circle 7 Studio

Whenever I heard from Rita Bornstein, either by email or — after it became more difficult for her to type, by phone — I expected that she would express concern about not having received her subscriber copy of Winter Park Magazine. 

I was displeased (and am still displeased) to hear that sort of news from anyone — but especially from this iconic former president of Rollins College who had been generous enough to call our publication “my favorite magazine.” 

Rita died in January at age 88 after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease. I had long enjoyed her feisty personality — she was both funny and formidable — and valued her feedback about stories that we had published (and stories that she thought we ought to have published).

So when she passed, I thought of an October 2020 call that brought a pleasant surprise. “Randy, this is Rita,” she said, as if that distinctive voice could have belonged to anyone else. “I’ve been using this crazy COVID time to write my autobiography. Would the magazine be interested in it?”

Well, of course we would! 

As a groundbreaking, barrier-smashing college administrator and an activist for important community causes during her post-presidency, Rita’s story would certainly be of interest to our readers. 

It didn’t occur to me — at least not then — that her writing of this account might have been more than a pandemic pastime. It was, I later realized, a step toward ensuring that her professional legacy would be known and appreciated. 

But it turned out to be much more than that. I believe that Rita also wanted to tell her compelling personal story and to amplify the life lessons it contained. In fact, when I received the first draft, I was amazed at how frank (and poignant) the narrative was. 

We published it in 2021’s winter issue under the title “Undaunted.” Maybe it could have just as aptly been called “Unplugged.” 

In the manuscript, Rita opened up about her childhood in Queens (she came from a broken home), her teenaged years (she was, shall we say, rebellious) and her first college experience (after just three months, she dropped out of the University of Chicago).

After returning to New York, Rita moved in with her mother — who was now divorced — and found the situation so tense that she impulsively boarded a bus to Los Angeles, taking with her little more than a suitcase and a guitar. 

Rita wrote: “And so, a new chapter in my life began as the result of a trip that was really brave or really stupid — or perhaps some of each.”

On the West Coast, she considered a career in the arts (she loved modern dance but decided that she was merely good, not great) and got married at age 20. (The union ended in divorce, with Rita becoming a single mom.) After several years in Los Angeles she moved Miami — where her mother had relocated — with daughter Rachel in tow. 

There she worked at a series of menial jobs and enrolled at Florida Atlantic University, where she majored in literature and English. Although she now had two children to support after a second marriage and the birth of a son,  Mark, she was determined to find her voice and make an impact.

“While my children grew up somewhat resentful of my commitment to school and later to work, they were proud of me,” wrote Rita. “I juggled the demands of school with the challenges of raising children and often felt guilty about the choices I made. However, I’ve always been grateful that I was able to develop my capacity for intellectual growth and professional success.” 

Rita would doggedly continue her education for 15 years — until 1975, when she eventually earned a Ph.D. in educational leadership from the University of Miami. 

From there, her legendary career began — first as a teacher at an experimental high school, then as a field director for the U.S. Office of Education’s School Desegregation Consulting Center. She also became an advocate for Title IX as director of the Southeast Sex Desegregation Center. 

Later Rita joined the development office at the University of Miami and, having apparently found her calling, worked her way up to the position of vice president for development. She succeeded in this male-dominated field — her “Campaign for Miami” raised an astonishing $517.5 million — impressing banker and UM trustee Charlie Rice, who was also a trustee at Rollins. 

Rice invited Rita to apply for the presidency when Thad Seymour retired and, after an exhaustive search, the “shy little girl” (as her mother described her) became the college’s first woman (and first Jewish) president in 1990. In “Undaunted,” Rita didn’t sugarcoat the fact that she encountered antisemitism: 

“I received a great deal of enthusiastic support as president — although I wasn’t immune to the many insults and negative comments that began as soon as I started the job,” she wrote. “There was even an anonymous letter to each trustee asserting that my financial vice president and I were destroying the college. I had the pleasure of watching attorney Harold Ward, one of the most prominent trustees, tear the letter to pieces in front of me.”

Of course, Rita’s accomplishments at Rollins were historic in many other ways. During her 14-year presidency, the college saw the construction, renovation or expansion of 25 buildings and the number of endowed chairs triple. A high point was the college’s rise from No. 6 in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of the South’s Best Regional Universities to No. 1.

In “Undaunted,” Rita wrote that she remained drawn to the possibilities of innovation and change in education even decades after retiring from Rollins: 

“Why, you may ask? To assure that our educational institutions and their leaders provide opportunities for every student to find a path to success. So that even a young, insecure girl from a broken family, with nothing to hold on to but the faint idea of a meaningful future, can launch her life.”

Of Rita’s many legacies, perhaps that’s the most significant.

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