Growing up as a cost-conscious child, Leah Bornstein, Ph.D., learned to cut paper napkins in half to make them last twice as long. It is a lesson she called on when Coconino Community College was studying efficiencies and ways to cut money from the budget. Bathroom paper towels were replaced with hand blowers for a $14,000 annual savings.
As President of CCC, Bornstein utilizes her many life skills, including her knowledge that there is always light at the end of dark tunnels. Bornstein’s parents divorced when she was eight and she grew up using food stamps. “At the time it was completely embarrassing but now I see it as character building,” said Bornstein about the lessons she learned. “As an adult, I see I’ve lived through that; it’s a way of survival. It is good to know you can rely on yourself.”
She got her first job at age 10, delivering fliers to homes. “I immediately grew up and became responsible when my father left. Being the oldest, earning money was important for the family and I have been working ever since,” she said.
By the time Bornstein was 14, she was capitalizing on her peers’ interest in makeup by working as an Avon rep. Some of the money she earned went toward extracurricular activities.
As Bornstein grew up, there was an expectation she would earn a baccalaureate degree. Her parents both had associate’s degrees, and they wanted their children to go further. Quietly, Bornstein held the dream of earning a doctorate. “I didn’t’ know what I would be a doctor of, but I liked the idea of being Dr. Bornstein.”
As a college freshman at Bradford, a small liberal arts school, Bornstein fell in love with higher education. She participated in numerous campus activities and served as a resident assistant (RA). After her first two years in college, Bornstein earned an associate’s degree, an achievement that gave her confidence that she could succeed. She loved her biology and genetics classes, but after taking a psychology class, she was hooked.
“My first job after college was at a residential halfway house,” she recalled. Working with 16- to 24-year-olds, many who had a lot more street smarts than Bornstein, was mentally draining for the young optimist. “When you are young you want to save the world. Seeing the potential in these young people who wouldn’t or couldn’t see it in themselves was incredibly frustrating for me.”
Bornstein decided to make a change and return to school. She sought out the advice of her mentor, Bradford College President Albert Levine, who now is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. “When I first met Leah, I thought, here is a person capable of doing anything,” he remembered. “I watched as she fell in love with colleges and universities and I thought to myself, she really could be a college president one day.” When Bornstein sought his input, he made that suggestion, and after she sat with the idea for a time, she became motivated by the thought. For Levine, who has followed Bornstein’s career with pride, he says, “it is nice to be right.”
After that pivotal meeting in Levine’s office, the 23-year-old Bornstein headed to Vermont to begin work on her master’s degree in higher education administration. She kept the counseling piece of her educational focus so she would always have a skill to fall back on after earning a Ph.D. In graduate school, Bornstein worked as a hall advisor. Later, she added various positions to her resume in student affairs, business services, academic affairs and executive level positions.
“Every position has been more responsibility, a little more supervision, a thoughtful choice of the next step and what would assist my career in being broad and deep,” said Bornstein. But she wondered if she was cut out to be a college president. “I thought, ‘I’m a good vice president and I see the craziness presidents go through. Do I want to do that?’”
She pursued some personal development opportunities, including a Harvard summer program for university administrators. Her period of soul-searching and self-questioning was time well spent. “I didn’t allow myself to move forward until I was ready.”
While serving as a CEO at Colorado Mountain College, the presidency became available at Coconino Community College in Flagstaff. She talked it over with her husband and when the job was offered to her, she accepted.
“A wonderful thing about being a president is influencing policy decisions on a statewide, local and federal level. In any position I held before that, I really wasn’t at the level to engage in those discussions.”
Bornstein recognizes the importance of these discussions as she and her colleagues work to move the country’s higher education agenda in positive directions.
And she works to maintain a balance between external commitments and internal challenges and demands – those relating to CCC.
The college faces extreme budget challenges. “We have the highest tuition in the state with the lowest property rate in the state and there is a direct correlation between those two,” said Bornstein.
On Nov. 5, voters are being asked to decide on a property tax rate increase of $2.40 for every $100,000 of property value. As college president, Bornstein does not advocate for passage of the measure, but she recognizes big changes will come if it does not pass.
During the past several years, Bornstein has drawn on her life experiences and shared them with the college community. She’s said, “yes, this is serious and yes, we are going to struggle and have a tough time. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Despite challenges of leading during these uncertain times, she has no doubts about her career choice. “I absolutely love it,” said Bornstein of her position. “I’m glad I found the courage to take a deep breath and try it.” FBN