A Message on the Passing of Rita Bornstein

January 10, 2024

By Grant H. Cornwell

Rita Bornstein
Photo by Scott Cook.

It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of the 13th president of Rollins College, Rita Bornstein ’04H ’04HAL.

During Rita Bornstein’s 14-year tenure, she helped reaffirm the College’s role as a leader in the national conversation on liberal education. Dr. Bornstein valued the importance of higher education to democracy and devoted herself to its service. A native of New York City and a longtime Florida resident, Dr. Bornstein earned her BA and MA degrees in English literature from Florida Atlantic University and was awarded a PhD in educational leadership from the University of Miami. She received honorary doctoral degrees from Florida Atlantic University, the University of Central Florida, and Rollins College.

Dr. Bornstein’s career included high school teaching and administration in Dade County, Florida, and directing the U.S. Office of Education Technical Assistance Center at the University of Miami (UM) to assist schools and colleges in implementing Title IX and gender equity in the Southeast. In 1981, she joined the UM development team, rising to the vice presidency and leading one of the largest and most successful fundraising campaigns in the history of American higher education at the time.

In 1990, she became president of Rollins, the first woman to hold the office. Under Dr. Bornstein’s leadership, average SAT scores for entering students rose more than 65 points and Rollins’ place in U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of “America’s Best Colleges” climbed from No. 6 regional university in the South to No. 1 in 2004. Innovation was encouraged and rewarded, with the addition of study such as sustainable development and the signature Rollins College Conference for first-year students. The College’s commitment to building strong communities was enhanced through programs of intellectual discourse, civic engagement, international study, and service learning. 

Additionally, Dr. Bornstein oversaw Rollins’ most ambitious fundraising effort to that date, securing $160.2 million and providing support for academic programs, scholarships, faculty, facilities, and the first endowment of a college presidency in the nation. During her tenure, the College’s endowment more than quintupled, and the College established 16 new endowed chairs and added, expanded, or renovated 25 facilities.

On the conclusion of her Rollins presidency in 2004, the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce named her Citizen of the Decade. As George D. and Harriet W. Cornell Professor of Philanthropy and Leadership Development at Rollins, she remained active nationally and in the Winter Park/Orlando community, where she served on the boards of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, Winter Park Health Foundation, and Parkinson Association of Central Florida.

Speaking personally, she welcomed Peg and me to Rollins with great warmth and became a trusted friend and advisor. She could not have been more supportive of us throughout our time here. We enjoyed her wit, intelligence, and insight, and will miss her dearly.

Dr. Bornstein left a lasting impact on Rollins, the higher education and nonprofit sector, and the Central Florida community. We send our heartfelt condolences to her family and friends.

A celebration of her life will be held Monday, January 29, at 2 p.m. in Rollins’ Knowles Memorial Chapel. It will also be live-streamed for those who cannot attend. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations in Bornstein’s honor be made to Rollins College (P.O. Box 850001, Dept. #9921, Orlando, FL 32885-9921), the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida (851 N. Maitland Avenue, Maitland, FL 32751), or the Parkinson Association of Central Florida (P.O. Box 3337, Winter Park, FL 32790).

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