Honoree: Marcia Keizs: From Teacher To York College President

BY JON CRONIN

BHM-CUBEAs president of York College in Jamaica, Dr. Marcia V. Keizs is at the heart of the world’s borough.

The school is celebrating its 50th year and Keizs is ecstatic to be part of that growth. She took over as president on Valentine’s Day in 2005.

Since she took the reins, the college has increased its full-time faculty by 40 percent. Freshman enrollment has grown by 61 percent over five years and the overall student body has increased by 25 percent in the past five years. York has created an undergraduate research program, an honors program with the Food and Drug Administration and restructured the college into three distinct schools: the School of Business and Information Systems, School of Health and Behavioral Sciences and the School of Arts and Sciences.

As a young adult in Kingston, Jamaica, Keizs never envisioned a future in college administration.
“I wanted to teach English and be a school teacher,” said Keizs when she left Jamaica to attend the University of Manitoba in Canada at age 20.

After graduating from college, she moved to New York City, where her mother and sister were already residing. She looked around at the splendor of the city and said, “Oh, this is good.”

Soon after moving to the five boroughs, she began her master’s degree in literature at Columbia University, where she concentrated on African American literature and later received her doctorate.

While she was in the midst of her graduate work, she noted the deep economic crisis of the 1970s and that “so much was happening at CUNY in higher education.”

Keizs taught English at Queensborough Community College to incoming freshman, but was also entranced by the literature of the time.  The authors she enjoyed and recommended to students included Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. She said the country was just coming out of the Civil Rights Movement and learning to embrace individual identity.

“Of course, there were obstacles,” she said. “I’m black; I’m a woman and have a funny accent.”

One of the prime obstacles in her life involved the personal shift in the paradigm between the world she grew up in and the densely populated world of New York City.

“I grew up on an island with big sprawling country,” she said. “Sometimes, I didn’t like New York City. It was too overwhelming, dirty, loud.”

Keizs noticed that there were different mores in the city, cited the stress of getting on and off the train every day and noted that she felt the general unfamiliarity of a new land.

She remembered that in the waning days of the 1960s, she visited New York City and was told by a landlord on Jerome Avenue near Yankee Stadium, “We’re not renting to you, but there are apartments up the hill.” To Keizs, the message was clear.

“They were just not accepting black people,” she said. “So, we went up the hill.  It was good. We got a little exercise.”

Keisz believes that at one point when she was applying for a teaching position, she was not given the job based on her race.  She points out that a white person was hired for the position and she was offered an administrative position instead.

“They wanted a white woman,” she said. “I took 24 hours to think about it, but in the end a job is a job is a job and I got some experience out of it. As a maturish career person in New York, I have not experienced that in 30 or so years.”

But Keizs said she doesn’t look back on slights such as these.

“We fight back and fight forward,” she said. “The big battles have been won; just make sure they don’t turn the clock back.”

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