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Eduardo Padr?n, Floridian of the Year

Eduardo Padron

Eduardo J. Padrón

President of Miami Dade College since 1995

Higher-ed accessibility: "Too many young people don't even see college as a possibility. But when more than 80% of the new jobs in our economy require higher education, this is a crisis well beyond funding. This is a deficit of understanding."

Family: Divorced since 1980, Padrón has a son, Camilo, and two grandchildren.

Interests: He frequently attends the theater, ballet and symphony. He collects Latin American contemporary art as well as Venetian and contemporary glass.

Favorite book in 2009: "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," by Doris Kearns Goodwin, for reinforcing his belief in the American democratic system.
[Photo: Brian Smith]

When newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made his first official visit to a higher-educational institution last spring, he said it was no coincidence that he chose Miami Dade College.

Duncan said he wanted to underscore the point that "community colleges will play a big role in getting America back on its feet again, and they will no longer be undervalued and underutilized."

That has been the tireless message of Miami Dade President Eduardo J. Padrón in 2009, a year he spent using "every pulpit, every forum, every microphone at every level" to push his message that community colleges are the ladder America needs to climb out of its economic hole.

As the state's economy foundered in 2009, a well-established dynamic played out once again: A weak economy and unemployment boosted demand for the education and training services that community colleges provide even as they strained funding for the schools.

This past fall, Florida's community colleges saw the highest enrollment growth in their history, swelling by 10%. Statewide, they absorbed nearly 160,000 new students with 6% less funding overall. Like other community colleges, Miami Dade is offering more four-year degrees and creating new programs, from computer-game design to nuclear apprenticeships for utility FPL. But it is doing so with less money per student — 19% less — than before the housing bubble burst and a student population that is 15% larger.

"This is no way to operate," says Padrón, a Cuban-born economist. "There is no way this state is going to survive unless we look at the needs of our people and figure out what will make them prosper.

"That is access to college," he says, "and it must be available to all citizens."

Padrón understands issues of access on a personal level. He came to Miami at age 15 during Operation Pedro Pan — the exodus of 14,000 Cuban children to the U.S. between 1960 and 1962. He says that after he graduated from Miami Senior High School in 1963, he "applied everywhere" to college and was rejected everywhere, with one exception: Miami Dade College.

"This place changed my life," he says. "I am what I am because of this place."

After studying business at the then-two-year college, Padrón earned his bachelor's in economics from Florida Atlantic University and master's and doctoral degrees in economics from the University of Florida. He returned to Miami Dade College in the fall of 1970 as an assistant professor of economics. He has never left. Padrón was president of the college's urban Wolfson campus from 1980 to 1995, when he was named president of the massive, eight-campus college.

"He represents the aspirations that people have, and he represents the opportunity to fill those aspirations," says Will Holcombe, chancellor of Florida's College System that oversees the state's 28 community colleges.

Padrón has a long history of advocacy for community colleges and particularly for trying to provide poor and minority students access to college. With 170,000 students, Miami Dade is one of the largest colleges in the nation and enrolls more minority students and more Pell Grant recipients than any other undergraduate college. Miami Dade graduates more minorities than any other institution in the United States, including the largest numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans.

What distinguished Padrón in 2009 — and what makes him Florida Trend's Floridian of the Year — was his influence. Padrón spent the year as chairman of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. He was the first Floridian, the first Hispanic and the first community college president to lead the national group.

Perhaps most important, he gained the ear of President Barack Obama, who has come to see community colleges as crucial to his 2020 goal of achieving the world's highest proportion of college graduates.

"In the past year, there has been a transformational change in the conversation" about American community colleges, says Holcombe. "President Obama is part of it, and many other leaders are part of it, and Eduardo is probably the best example of those leaders who are having an impact."

Brian Fitzgerald "The nexus of education and business is crucial to the nation's competitiveness, and that is a space that Eduardo has really influenced. He has clearly influenced the Obama administration."
— Brian Fitzgerald, executive director, Business-Higher Education Forum, an organization of Fortune 500 CEOs and college and university presidents
The most tangible example of change is Obama's $12-billion infusion of economic stimulus funding for community colleges, aimed at adding 5 million students nationwide.

Padrón's voice also is resonating in Florida, where business groups including the Chamber of Commerce have urged lawmakers to let community colleges expand their degree programs to meet the evolving needs of the economy. A Florida Council of 100 study lamented that Florida ranked 43rd in the nation in the number of residents with bachelor's degrees.

Frank Nero, president and CEO of the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade's public-private economic-development partnership, says he appreciates that Padrón "has stood up when it's not been easy to stand up on controversial issues." He credits Padrón with forging a strong coalition among Miami-Dade's superintendent of schools and college presidents to press for education funding.

Padrón is not free of controversy. He took advantage of a loophole in a state retirement program that allowed some workers to "double-dip" — to retire and collect retirement benefits while returning to their previous jobs at full salary. Padrón, the St. Petersburg Times reported, collected a $893,286 lump-sum retirement benefit in 2006 and began receiving $14,631 a month in retirement pay. Meanwhile, he returned to the president's job, where his $495,962 salary by itself makes him one of the highest-paid college presidents in the nation. The Times named Padrón the state's leading "double-dipper." A spokesman told the newspaper that the school's board had asked Padrón to return and that the retirement process was legal and acceptable.

Padrón has also been criticized by faculty who charged he was singularly focused on training workers for south Florida's corporations to the detriment of liberal arts education. He responds that both at Miami Dade and nationally, he has pushed liberal education, including ethics and critical-thinking and communications skills, "for every American."

"The world is spinning at such a very fast pace that you need not only technical skills, but general skills in many different areas to adapt to different situations," Padrón says. "Just preparing somebody to install solar panels is not going to be enough because two years from now it will be something else."

Padrón says that even more than faculty, business leaders have expressed strongly how much they need flexible problem-solvers. He insists that Miami Dade College officials call on each new business relocating to the region to ask about their specific needs. Listening to them closely, he says, is the key to lifting Florida's economy.

Brian E. Keeley, president and CEO of Baptist Health South Florida, says the college's customized healthcare degrees "are allowing the healthcare industry, one of the only growth industries, to hire hundreds of people in south Florida.

"Eduardo Padrón has had a profound effect on our local community and now on our economy," Keeley says. "It's probably fair to say he's touched everybody's life in south Florida — certainly more so than any other educator down here."

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