Manhattan Beach

A president with a vision

Interview with Kingsborough President Farley Herzek

September 17, 2015 By John B. Manbeck Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Kingsborough Community College President Farley Herzek. Photos by Sean Thill

Private Citizen Farley Herzek pushed into the No. 42 bus filled with Kingsborough Community College students. “Hi. Do you go to Kingsborough? And where do you live? Manhattan? Why travel so far?”

He continued to ask these questions. The students lived in Queens, the Bronx, Rockaways and Canarsie. They chose Kingsborough because they liked the campus, they learned from their professors, they knew it was a good college.

They did not know that Farley Herzek would be the next president of Kingsborough.

Typically, new presidents wait until they take office when the dean of students gathers the best and brightest to meet and greet the new chief executive. But that’s not the way with President Herzek. He wants to know his students personally — their issues, their problems, their desires — even before they do.

Their major issues? Tuition, transportation, food and books.

With a backpack of experience on multiple educational levels, he returned to the Brooklyn of his youth after investing 35 years in the California education system, 17 of them in community colleges.

Community colleges are not one-size-fits-all across the nation. Having developed in different periods with different educational goals, each state defines and creates the colleges for individual educational missions.

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Therefore, in New York, California, Texas and Illinois, students attend community colleges as an introduction to higher education, as a terminal degree or as an entrée to a technical education. The unique community college education in New York City differs from that in the balance of New York state in that it aims to develop a basic core education for the students.

Herzek is enthusiastic about the challenges that he sees at Kingsborough. Fundamentally, he recognizes it as a superior school with excellent faculty and dedicated students. He has prospered from hands-on teaching experience from K-12 grades. Almost immediately, he identified the needs and barriers of the urban student and addressed them.

“We must chip away at obstacles to education,” he observed. By removing the barriers and providing resources, the student retention rate will be increased. The retention rate is the basis for funding from the state. Rather than have students “tested to death,” he would prefer that they comprehend and benefit from the subject matter they are studying, he said.

The Kingsborough situation was not foreign to Herzek. California colleges had similarly diverse populations, largely Hispanic and Vietnamese as well as Cambodian and African American. While students there come from closely knit local communities, one obvious obstacle for New York students is a more spread out geographical region. They descend on Kingsborough from all over the city. They come from large families, sometimes at poverty level, many with single parents. They work hard, often at two jobs.

They need public transportation, they need food and they need guidance. As president, Herzek plans to address these needs.

While talking to him I sensed a determination to succeed and the willingness to take risks to do so. Low-keyed and soft spoken, he exhibits a clarity of message. He does not want to be a caretaker president. What is the greatest obstruction for students to graduate from a community college in two years? Mathematics.

While Kingsborough students achieve a respectable level of mathematics knowledge according to CUNY standards, they are not competitive on national and international levels. He tackled the problem immediately. To solve this initial dilemma, Herzek met with his staff, chairmen and faculty and initiated a camaraderie. In meetings he projects his ideas. He listens and encourages initiative, not reaction.

What emerged was a mathematics “boot camp” offered in the summer for incoming freshmen. He considers mathematics a “gatekeeper” to the future of education. The goal of the boot camp is to increase retention rates in the math classes and bring entering students to college level math. The only demand: a seat for every student enrolled. To date, the class retention rate in the summer math boot camp has jumped from 37 percent to 85 percent. Incentives? Free tuition for high school seniors, free breakfast and lunch, free MTA cards and free textbooks. The cost: four days a week of hard work, with success as the payment. That’s the best motivation, Herzek said.

Herzek casts about four doable education projects. He hopes that the math classes will provide articulation with high schools, but realizes that initially he will be restricted to those in the nearby neighborhoods.

To welcome students to a foreign — sometimes literally so — campus, the college devised a One Stop application for phones called Assist Me. This app encourages students to seek assistance before making rash decisions, to find answers to orientation questions like: Where is Financial Aid? Who is my faculty adviser? How can I get tutoring? Where is the cafeteria and the gym? Where is the counseling office? Instead, all they need to do is look at their phones, which are probably in their hands already. This approach is more effective than an abstract bulletin board of room numbers and relates to the students personally, Herzek said.

Another weakness that Herzek hopes to strengthen is the study of science. The STEM program — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — addresses this issue with laboratory work in modules and teams. The recruitment and results to date have been positive and promising. He feels that for now, the humanities, particularly the English Department, have achieved success in the remedial reading and writing approaches. The college-wide KCC Reads program, for instance, is sponsoring a discussion of the inspiring novel “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie this fall.

Herzek, 58, is not only enthusiastic about Kingsborough and its students, but about his return to Brooklyn. Growing up in Canarsie in the 1960s, he cherishes the freedom of those years. After P.S. 115, he moved on to Brooklyn College and the City College of New York for his baccalaureate degrees, and then to California for a masters from California State University, Long Beach. He met his wife, Cheryl, in California, although she comes from Cleveland. As a K-12 and a community college counselor and an “avid” photographer, her husband reports, they found much in common. At first she was skeptical about Brooklyn, but has now accepted the change and the challenge.

Herzek remains enthusiastic about Brooklyn’s diversity, vibrant neighborhoods and ample opportunities. Good public transportation in New York City is an advantage over that in California, he said. He feels he has support from the local communities and civic leaders, such as Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the City Council, state Assembly and state senatorial members.

The college, he recognizes, has seized its role as a community resource with its successful performing arts program and summer concerts. The vibrant art gallery has expanded as an active purveyor of culture with a prepared year’s program of events. Add to this the talented and visionary faculty, Herzek said, which make Kingsborough Community College a gem in CUNY’s mission.         

Among the students that Herzek met on his initial bus encounter was a disabled student who commuted from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach for her classes. A week after assuming his role as president, he waited at the same bus stop outside the college’s main gate. When the woman emerged from the bus, he greeted her and introduced himself as the new president, adding that he particularly wanted to lead Kingsborough because he had met such a dedicated student as she.

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