Brooklyn Heights

Multi-cultural perspectives from new St. Francis president

Miguel Martinez-Saenz Talks to the Brooklyn Eagle

September 28, 2017 By John Alexander Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Photo courtesy of St. Francis College
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In August, St. Francis College, ranked among Forbes top colleges for the tenth year, announced that Miguel Martinez-Saenz would become the 19th president of the 160-year old college. He follows interim President Timothy J. Houlihan who filled the position after the death of Brendan J. Dugan last December.

With a master’s degree and Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of South Florida, Martinez-Saenz began his academic career as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. He moved from Wittenberg to accept the position of Dean and Associate Provost for Student Success at St. Cloud State University.

Martinez-Saenz most recently taught at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio where he was the provost and Vice President of academic affairs. Martinez-Saenz and his wife, two children and two dogs recently made the move from the mid-west to the Heights.

The Atlanta, Georgia born and Miami raised Cuban-American Martinez-Saenz took the time to talk with the Brooklyn Eagle, about a variety of subjects, including his role at St. Francis College and his vision for the future.


Brooklyn Eagle: So, you grew up in Miami.

Martinez-Saenz: Yes, I was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1967, and moved to Miami two and a half years later. I grew up in Miami. The trajectory for me is I went from Miami to Tallahassee, Tallahassee to Miami, Miami to Tallahassee, then Miami to Tampa, Springfield, Ohio, St. Cloud, Minnesota, Westerville, Ohio, Brooklyn.


Eagle: Was it a culture shock moving to the mid-west?

Martinez-Saenz: Well, Ohio was interesting. We grew to love it. I had not planned on applying to a school in the mid-west, but the director of my dissertation brought Wittenberg to my attention. He said the school was in Springfield, Ohio and I said ‘no, I’m not going to Ohio,’ and I ended up going there and spending 10 years there. Now, Miami is more like the northeast than the mid-west.


Eagle: You have said that you are committed to the three major pillars of higher education: student access, retention and student success. Please explain.

Martinez-Saenz: The bottom line is that we have figured out a way to create access opportunities for students in a variety of ways. But access in itself is not sufficient. The question is how do you get them to graduate. The idea, I think, is to create the conditions that will insure that students who navigate this place and are willing to do the work successfully graduate. So, that’s the orientation. Don’t just talk about the entry points, talk about points beyond entry points and beyond graduation as well.


Eagle: You have a Ph.D. in Philosophy. Does the study of philosophy translate in today’s current world view?

Martinez-Saenz: Oh yeah, absolutely. The world needs more philosophers. But there’s not many people interested in studying philosophy.  And that may be by design. I think the world is aching for people that will ask and deliberate about the fundamental questions that face us. And I don’t mean in a basic perennial sense. I mean in a way that allows us to understand the challenges that we face, the problems that we face, and be able to think really creatively about the solutions. We philosophers are trained to not deal with the superficial but the substantive. I think we need more philosophers in a very general sense.

I think students are craving both philosophical and theological questions. Church communities in my sense have avoided asking the hard questions. Universities are not asking the hard questions. So young people growing up are asking ‘where do I ask the hard questions and think about them.’ Catholic colleges have the opportunity because we are inclined both philosophically and theologically to make these questions a centerpiece of our education.


Eagle: You have programs planned to promote diversity, equity and respect. What does this mean for you as a Cuban-American?

Martinez-Saenz: That’s interesting. I’m not sure that my commitments in the areas of diversity, equity, etc., and promoting the dignity of each person, are tied to my identity as a Cuban-American. I grew up in Miami at a time when it was 90 percent Cuban. My school was made up almost entirely of Cuban-Americans. So the question of being in a minority didn’t exist. The first time I realized we were different was when I went to Tallahassee.

It’s my disposition to believe that all individuals deserve to be treated with respect. I’d like to tell you that my identity had something to do with it, and experiencing sometimes being the outsider, absolutely. I wanted to be a priest when I was young. I was very inclined. So, I genuinely believe that it is our duty to promote a sense of diversity, equity and respect within a Catholic college.


Eagle: You have been honored with a variety of accolades during your academic career, including the Ohio Latino Awards Educator of the Year, Insight into Diversity Visionary Award and the Lillian C. Franklin Diversity Award.  These are some very impressive recognitions.

Martinez-Saenz: (Laughs) Yeah, I mean I will tell you, they have got to give it to somebody. The jury’s still out. I’ve just come to Brooklyn. I’ve been here for three weeks. All I ask of myself is that I aspire to do good. I try to live my life consistent with the values that I espouse. That’s the attempt and I think that if we did that more and more we would all sleep better.


Eagle: How have your wife and children adapted to living in Brooklyn?

Martinez-Saenz: Well, we live in Boerum Hill. You know, my son has probably done the best. He’s nine and when I told him we were moving he said, ‘We’re going to NYC baby.’ I played him the Beastie Boys, “No Sleep till Brooklyn,” and he’s happy. My daughter is 12 and that’s a tough age. And so, what I can only hope is that she will look back on this as an experience that was worthwhile. Right now she’s struggling with missing her friends. My wife likes it.  We enjoy it. We used to come to New York probably once a year.

It’s the right place to be. It’s actually very interesting because it feels so right. It is a change coming from Westerville to Brooklyn. Transitioning to the mid-west was in some regards harder. This feels like the right space.  I think I’ve got one of the best jobs, if not the best job right now on the planet.


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