Remembering Rita Bornstein

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The community is mourning the passing of scholar, philanthropist and advocate, Dr. Rita Bornstein, who died on Tuesday, Jan. 9. Best known for her 14 years of academic leadership as a Rollins College President Emeritus, her story is one of determination, advocacy, and service.

“During her 14-year tenure, she helped reaffirm the College’s role as a leader in the national conversation on liberal education. Dr. Bornstein valued the importance of higher education to democracy and devoted herself to its service,” said Rollins College President Grant Cornwell in a prepared statement. “Dr. Bornstein left a lasting impact on Rollins, the higher education and nonprofit sector, and the Central Florida community. We send our heartfelt condolences to her family and friends.”

Born in New York, Bornstein was inspired by dance and attended the Lester Horton Dance Theater in Los Angeles. Despite a love of performing, she became dedicated to furthering her education and enrolled in Florida Atlantic University after moving to Miami in 1960. While raising her children, Rachel and Mark, she earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in English literature before beginning her studies at the University of Miami. She graduated in 1975 with a doctorate in education leadership and instruction. Later in her career, she would receive honorary doctoral degrees from Florida Atlantic University, the University of Central Florida, and Rollins College.

After helping to design an innovative model for secondary school education at North Miami Beach Senior High School, Bornstein spent four years directing the U.S. Office of Education Technical Assistance Center at the University of Miami. In 1981, her service to the university would continue as Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations. She eventually was named vice president for development and led one of the most successful fundraising campaigns in the history of American higher education.

Bornstein was a fierce supporter of Title IX – the federal law prohibiting sexual discrimination in schools – and worked to secure federal funding for a regional assistance center to aid schools in its implementation. She would continue as an equal rights advocate, taking the role of director for the Southeast Sex Desegregation Assistance Center.

Of her time as director, Bornstein wrote, “Audiences were generally hostile to my message. Facing groups of angry parents, administrators and coaches upset me at first — but I learned to listen and to be sensitive to the discomfort being expressed. All leaders must learn to do this.”

Dr. Rita Bornstein credited her years as a dancer and choreographer for honing her sense of discipline, along with her strength and confidence. Photo courtesy of: Rollins College

In 1990, after the retirement of Rollins President Thaddeus Seymour, she was invited to apply for the role by trustee and Barnett Bank chairman, Charles E. Rice, who also was a University of Miami trustee. She was voted in after three visits and became the first woman to hold the title in Rollins College history.

In a 2019 interview with the Rollins student newspaper The Sandspur, Bornstein’s advice for young women seeking leadership roles was simply, “Put up your fists and fight for what you want. Don’t let anyone walk over you.” She lived that example during her presidency as she worked to raise the College’s profile, standards, and endowment. She oversaw the Campaign for Rollins fundraiser, bringing in $160.2 million that aided academic support and built several facilities including the McKean Gateway and the Cornell Campus Center. Under her leadership, Rollins’ ranking in U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” rose from a regional number six ranking to a statewide rank of number one.

Bornstein’s dedication as an educator and businesswomen was matched by her dedication to the community. Her honors include: the Council for Advancement and Support of Education District II Chief Executive Leadership Award, the Laureate for Lifetime Achievement in Fundraising, and the Summit Award. In 1994, Rollins College was awarded the Tenth Annual Citizen of the Year Award by the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce in recognition of its contribution of two Habitat for Humanity houses. And in 2004, the year she left office, the Chamber named Bornstein Citizen of the Decade.

She continued to serve the Central Florida community as a Board member of Winter Park Health Foundation, Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center, and the Parkinson Association for Central Florida. In 2020, she donated $100,000 to support the digitization of analog materials in the Rollins College archives. That same year, an in-depth, autobiographical essay was published in Winter Park Magazine and appropriately titled “Undaunted.”

A celebration of her life will be held in the Knowles Memorial Chapel on the Rollins campus. Information regarding the date and time will soon be made available.

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