In Memory: Rita Bornstein ’04H ’04HAL
January 18, 2024
By Laura J. Cole ’04 ’08MLS
Rollins’ 13th president lived a life of perseverance, driven by a respect for education, demand for excellence, and deep care for others.
While descending six floors of stairs, Rita Bornstein sang. In fall 2022, Hurricane Ian hit Florida, causing the basement of The Mayflower—the senior community in Winter Park where she lived—to flood and the elevators to stop working. It was nearly 20 years since she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and had retired from her position as president of Rollins (though the one was certainly not the reason for the other), and she was mostly—but not entirely—wheelchair-bound.
When personnel arrived at her home on the sixth floor to help her evacuate, they offered to carry her down.
“Rita would have none of it,” says Barbara Harrell Child, professor emerita of English. “Parkinson’s will sometimes cause people to freeze, but Rita had heard that if you sing, it will sometimes release the freeze. It took her a while, but she walked down all of those stairs, singing. I love that image of her—singing and dancing as long as she did. And boy, she really, really did.”
The first woman to be president at Rollins, Bornstein died January 9, 2024, at the age of 88. During her tenure, from 1990 to 2004, the College reached new heights in its academic reputation, boosted its economic outlook, strengthened community relationships, and saw the construction, renovation, or expansion of 25 facilities. Under Bornstein’s leadership, the number of endowed chairs tripled, enrollment grew by 60 percent, retention increased, and Rollins went from No. 6 in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of the South’s best colleges to No. 1 in 2004.
“Rita Bornstein brought Rollins into the 21st century, both literally and conceptually,” says President Grant Cornwell. “We benefit today from choices made in her presidency. I’m so glad Rita and I enjoyed a relationship where she could tell me exactly what she thought. She understood we were both driven by the same commitment to Rollins students and their success. Our conversations about higher education and leadership were always enlightening, not to mention she was so much fun.”
The Road to Rollins
Bornstein’s life was not always cause for singing, but she always found reason to. She grew up in New York, the daughter of a mother who fled an anti-Semitic regime in Russia at 10 years old and a father whose parents emigrated from Austria. Her dad went to work most days before the sun rose and returned long after it had set while her mom stayed home with Bornstein and her younger brother, Arnold.
“The atmosphere at home was bleak and sad,” she wrote in an essay for Winter Park Magazine in 2020. “My father was a model of sacrifice, stoicism, and hard work. Although he was well liked and generous, he was not expressive or affectionate. My mother, on the other hand, was hungry for affection. They were not well matched.”
The two later divorced, but Bornstein fondly recalled singing Russian folk songs with her grandmother and mother around the kitchen table; making up stories and playing school with Arnold; and studying modern dance under legends Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham.
After high school, she was accepted to the University of Chicago, which she attended for three months before dropping out—only later discovering its reputation and regretting her decision to leave.
“She grabbed her guitar and headed for California,” says Child. “She worked at a factory out there for a while doing all kinds of things and continued to dance [at the Lester Horton Dance Theater in Los Angeles]. When she realized she’d never be the best dancer, she gave it up. But I think she always remained a dancer in her grace and her ability to call on all parts of herself to express what she wanted, what she believed in.”
It was in Los Angeles that Bornstein also got married and had her daughter, Rachel, at only 20 years old.
“I was frustrated in ways that I couldn’t have articulated at the time,” wrote Bornstein. “I realize now that I was yearning for more. I wanted more education. I wanted to make an impact.”
After a divorce, she moved with Rachel to live in Miami, where she remarried and had a son, Mark. And she began to get the additional education she sought, this time at Florida Atlantic University, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English, writing her thesis on the revolutionary Black poetry of the 1960s and ’70s.
Bornstein taught at an experimental high school while earning her PhD in educational leadership from the University of Miami (UM). The experience led to her dissertation, her decision to leave public schools, and her foray into working at private colleges, beginning with UM. While teaching courses in education, she worked to promote sex equity and Title IX through the Southeast for the U.S. Department of Education. She joined the UM development staff in 1981, soon becoming vice president and raising $517.5 million toward the Campaign for Miami—among the largest and most successful fundraising campaigns in higher education at the time.
Her work at UM garnered the attention of the presidential search committee at Rollins, where she succeeded Thaddeus Seymour ’82HAL ’90H as president.
“Her strengths as a fundraiser were so strong, and those we reached out to for their impressions of her leadership and capabilities were resounding in their support and recommendation,” says longtime Rollins board member Allan Keen ’70 ’71MBA ’10H, who led the search committee. “We made the right choice. Her ability to raise money and set high goals and standards for educating our students was impressive.”
Linda Peterson Warren ’64 witnessed Bornstein’s natural leadership abilities firsthand before she became president of Rollins. The two met during a whitewater rafting trip with their husbands down the Salmon River in Idaho. Over the years, they bonded over having children early, contemporary art, theater, and dance.
“It was not a rafting trip for the faint of heart,” says Warren, whom Bornstein later invited to participate in her inauguration. “We weren’t pampered, and we became friends at the get-go. One night a big storm blew up, blowing away their tent. In true Rita spirit, she didn’t bat an eyelash. She just went about shaking out the water and reconstructing the tent, saying, ‘I’m going to do this, and I’m not going to call a guy to ask what do I do now?’ She just did what needed to be done.”
A Legacy of Excellence
Bornstein’s fundraising abilities would come to dominate many conversations about her legacy before, during, and after her presidency. She secured $160.2 million for Rollins in support of academic programs, scholarships, facilities, and faculty funding, including 16 endowed chairs—and increased the endowment from $39 million to $260 million.
But fundraising was a means to achieve the real goal, which she laid out in her inaugural address: “We will be unrelenting in pursuit of the resources necessary to support the flourishing of excellence, innovation, and community.”
The latter two engendered what remain at the core of the Rollins experience: Rollins College Conference (RCC) courses for first-year students, Living Learning Communities, and what would become the College’s annual SPARC Day of Service. But perhaps Bornstein’s greatest legacy is her demand for excellence, a vague term made tangible when she elevated the perception of Rollins both internally and externally.
“When Rita left, she had significantly increased the academic reputation of the College,” says Rollins historian Jack Lane. “When the Associated Colleges of the South had to choose a college from Florida, it chose Rollins almost immediately. Four or five other colleges applied for it, and Rollins was chosen. And it was no accident that Rita was president when they asked us to join.”
As a leader, Bornstein saw it as her responsibility to make Rollins part of the conversation, and to that end, she served on several boards, including the American Council on Education, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the Associated Colleges of the South. And she published prodigiously—in total 46 articles and four books on leadership, governance, and fundraising. Her 2003 book, Legitimacy in the Academic Presidency: From Entrance to Exit, cemented her as an authority on the higher-education presidency.
“Rita became very involved with the college administrative groups, where she worked, and was president of, and published a lot in their journals,” says Maurice O’Sullivan, professor emeritus of English. “She made sure they all knew about Rollins, and that’s why we began moving up in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. That was part of her goal: that people outside Rollins recognized Rollins as a school that was exceptional.”
That level of exceptionalism was something she expected of herself, her faculty, and everyone she encountered. During her presidency, Bornstein was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but few knew it.
“She had Parkinson’s for years, and she kept it to herself,” says trustee chair Rick Goings ’12H. Bornstein served on the board of Tupperware, where Goings was chairman and CEO, and later recruited him to join the Rollins board. “She had it the last seven years of her presidency, and those were among the most productive times.”
She genuinely wanted others to power through setbacks and obstacles, and many stories have been shared over the decades of Bornstein offering advice—requested or not.
“Rita always wanted the best—not in the sense that she was necessarily going to buy the best car, but intellectually and socially,” says Hoyt Edge, professor emeritus of philosophy and former associate dean of the faculty. “There was sort of a moral element in there, an ethical element. The best was what made for flourishing individuals like herself, but she was just as concerned for that flourishing in others.”
This could be advising a local business leader to start a business right away rather than wait or telling an unconfident student to stand up straight, put their shoulders back, and be strong. Many people benefited from Bornstein’s encouragement and mentorship, including Chrissy Garton ’06. The two met on Garton’s first day as a Rollins student when Bornstein overheard her say that she planned to be Secretary of State. Intrigued, Bornstein introduced herself.
“Never in a million years would I’ve guessed that on that day 22 years ago I’d meet the single most important person in my life—who would become my mentor, confidant, and lifelong friend,” says Garton, who started the social innovation program at Rollins and is now a philanthropic advisor and social impact strategist. “Although my career goals changed, Rita’s enthusiasm and support for me never did. Our friendship impacted every part of my life from my leadership style and career objectives to my marriage and relationship with my children. She was accomplished by all measures and didn’t need to care about the little things in my life, but she did—deeply.”
Passion, Purpose, and Heart
Bornstein never stopped caring deeply—or learning.
In her retirement, she helped lead the effort to raise the first $80 million to bring the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts to life and create a world-class cultural center in Orlando. She served on its board as well as the boards for the Winter Park Health Foundation and the Parkinson Association for Central Florida. She also served as an advisor for the Holocaust Museum for Hope & Humanity.
When she moved to The Mayflower, she started a speaker series after discovering that the community members would benefit from more intellectual stimulation. She called on former Rollins faculty members, including O’Sullivan, to speak.
In November, Bornstein had been in the hospital when O’Sullivan was scheduled to speak at her invitation. Discovering that her return to The Mayflower coincided with his talk, she took a detour to introduce him, joking about her “hospital hair” before leaving to rest.
“She called me on Thanksgiving to thank me for giving the talk and started reminiscing about the past and her legacy, which she rarely did—that should have been my clue that she wasn’t doing well,” says O’Sullivan. “The first thing she said to me about it was I hope most people do not remember me primarily as a fundraiser.”
Like so many others, O’Sullivan does not. He’ll remember her as a resilient woman who laughed easily, took her role as president seriously, saw herself as a public intellectual, and was certainly a Renaissance woman.
“It’s such a cliché to say Rita was larger than life,” says Lorrie Kyle ’70, executive director of the president’s office, “but I can think of no one who knew and did and cared about so much.” Kyle—who was hired by Bornstein at the start of her presidency and has served all three Rollins presidents since—has long been known as her go-to-girl-turned-dear-friend, someone Bornstein depended on all the way up to the end. “Rita embraced the world’s possibilities and encouraged us all to join in. She brought life to my life.”
“She really was a woman who lived life fully,” echoes Child. “She just embraced it all and kept on dancing—and singing—until the very end.”
Bornstein is survived by her children, Rachel Setear and Mark Bornstein; beloved granddaughters, Ariel and Hayley Setear; stepson and daughter-in-law, Per Bloland and Anne Roma, and their children, Signe and Ezio; and brother, Arnold Kropf, and his wife, Dee.
A celebration of her life will be held Monday, January 29, at 2 p.m. in Rollins’ Knowles Memorial Chapel. It will also be live-streamed on Rollins’ Office of the President website for those who cannot attend. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations in Bornstein’s honor be made to Rollins College (P.O. Box 850001, Dept. #9921, Orlando, FL 32885-9921), the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida (851 N. Maitland Avenue, Maitland, FL 32751), or the Parkinson Association of Central Florida (P.O. Box 3337, Winter Park, FL 32790).
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