Community Impact Awards: Seasoned educator ushers in change at York College

Photo by Nat Valentine
By Anna Gustafson

Since Marcia Keizs became the sixth president of York College nearly four years ago, the Jamaica institution has undergone a large−scale transformation that has changed the way the community, professors and students perceive the school.

No longer do high school principals ask if York is a community college, student enrollment and retention has increased and the college now offers a series of new programs, including Aviation Management.

There is a revamped library that boasts the latest technology, students have new places to congregate with friends and study and about 75 new faculty members have been brought on board.

“York is doing well,” Keizs said. “We have strengthened our academic programs, and several of our programs have been accredited or reaccredited. Not only have we strengthened our academics, but we have diversified and brought on board new programs so students in the Queens area and across New York City can have new, state−of−the−art programs they could choose from.”

Keizs, 64, drew on three decades of experience in the CUNY system to change the way things run at York. Prior to arriving at York, Keizs, a resident of Hartsdale in Westchester County, served as the vice president of academic affairs at Bronx Community College from 1997−2005.

She began her career as an English professor at Queensborough Community College, where she later became the vice president and dean of student services. Keizs has been an assistant dean at LaGuardia Community College and served a stint at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.

“I have spent all of my career in CUNY,” said Keizs, who was at Bronx Community College before she took the reins at York. “I was very conversant with the issues and the goals of CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein.”

York is a relatively young college and opened its doors in 1967 in Bayside. The college moved to Jamaica four years later in 1971. York held its first classes in what is now its academic core in 1986, after almost six years of construction and now boasts a 50−acre campus. The population has skyrocketed over the years, growing from an entering class of 371 students to its current enrollment of a little under 7,000 — up from about 6,150 pupils when Keizs took over as president.

Immediately after she became president of York on Feb. 14, 2005, Keizs, with the help of a committee of senior staff and faculty, set four major objectives for the school.

Those included bettering the academic programs, stabilizing and growing enrollment, improving facilities and conducting a public relations campaign so community members, potential students and area educators understood York College was a senior college that awards bachelor’s degrees.

“A lot of people in the community didn’t know who we were or where we were going,” Keizs said. “I remember a high school principal who said York was not on their radar screen, and when I asked why not, he said, ‘Isn’t York a community college? Is it safe over there?’ We had to make people understand we’re a safe place and that we’re a senior college with a vast array of programs. We have such a diverse set of students who are all very, very serious about their academic work.”

When Keizs arrived at York, the college’s students were not the “right academic fit,” she said. Many students were unprepared for the college coursework and too frequently would drop out after their first year, Keizs said.

“We did an assessment and saw some students did not have the basic high school average that would make them successful at a senior college, nor had they taken courses that would prepare them for a senior college,” Keizs said.

In 2006, the college set more rigorous academic benchmarks for students applying to York. Individuals now must have at least a 75 high school average and be able to pass CUNY’s reading, writing and mathematics placement exams. As a result of these new standards, York’s retention rate has skyrocketed.

Keizs was born and grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, where she cultivated a love of learning, thanks to a series of “amazing teachers.”

“I had some phenomenal English teachers,” she said. “By age 12, I knew I wanted to teach, to be in education. It was pretty much a no−brainer for me.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at agustafson@timesledger.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

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