Building a Talent Pipeline: NJCU President Dr. Sue Henderson

May 22, 2015 1:37 pm

By Barbara Frankel

sue-henderson310[1] copyDr. Sue Henderson is helping New Jersey City University dramatically improve its ability to create a diverse pipeline of educated workers.

Dr. Henderson, who became the Hispanic-Serving Institution’s 12th president and first woman president in August 2012, is leading the effort to expand the university’s physical presence and outreach to help students enroll and stay in school.

“I am proud of putting together a small team that has been able to accomplish big goals in a short period of time,” she says. She cites the focus on capital improvements to the new West Campus and enhanced academic programs in crucial areas, such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

A key goal is to “help students finish in a timely manner,” she says, noting the financial problems many students face in continuing their education. Currently, freshmen and sophomore retention rates average 74 percent, and her goal is to get it to 85 percent. Juniors and seniors average 65 percent retention, often because they run out of federal Pell grant money.

The longer-term goal is to get more students to graduate within five years, she says.

“It is critically important to look at how best to support them,” she says, noting that NJCU, which opened in 1929 and became a university in 1998, has had an “exponential growth curve” and now has 8,500 students from 35 countries.

NJCU is an Hispanic-Serving Institution but its student population is quite diverse, with significant growth occurring in Muslim students. The average student age is 26.

“I am working with a lot of first-generation students. The foundation (DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti is chair of the NJCU Foundation Board) and grant money helps us get as many students as possible into college,” she says.

Dr. Antonio R. Flores, President and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), praised Dr. Henderson’s efforts:

“Dr. Sue Henderson is actively involved in advocating for the needs of HSIs and emerging HSIs that are instrumental in educating more than two-thirds of the nearly 3 million Hispanic college students and over 6 million students from diverse backgrounds. HACU is fortunate to have a dynamic leader like Dr. Henderson serving on our government relations committee and international commission on education. Both of these governing bodies are designed to advise HACU on promoting greater opportunities for Hispanic students in higher education,” he says.

Remarkable Background
Dr. Henderson grew up in Atlanta, where her father was the superintendent of schools and her mother was in charge of health and physical education. Her parents came from a small town in East Tennessee so she experienced both small town and urban life.

Yet the schools she and her siblings attended in Atlanta were mostly segregated by neighborhood, and she was troubled by the racial and socioeconomic differences.

In seventh grade, she had an inspiring math teacher and realized she was exceptional at mathematics. Her father encouraged her and eventually, she became a math professor, with none of the societal barriers that often stop girls from realizing math potential.

“I liked math because it offers concrete, rational answers not based on opinion,” she recalls.

While teaching in Atlanta, a colleague asked her to become interim chair of the math department. She was very good at this and was asked to chair another department.

“I found out that when you were in the classroom you mentored students and when you were a department chair, you mentored faculty,” she says.

She became provost of the school, Georgia Perimeter College, and then saw an opportunity for a very different experience at Queens College in New York City, where she eventually became Chief Operating Officer.

“It was a incredibly diverse institution, plus I loved the pace of the Northeast,” she says.

She knew that she eventually wanted to pursue a college presidency and several of her mentors encouraged her. As her experience and reputation increased, her advisers told her to make sure she found a school “that was the right fit.” She interviewed at several institutions but “didn’t feel like I could spend 24/7 there” until she came to NJCU.

“It was very similar to Queens – an urban population with many immigrants, many looking for the American dream. There was a faculty committed to working with students to have a better life,” she says.