Meet Madam President: Madeline PumariegaAlumna, Leader, ‘Girl From Hialeah,’ to Lead MDC Forward

President Pumariega sitting at a conference table

Like Miami Dade College, Madeline Pumariega started from humble beginnings and grew to exemplify excellence. Now, 60 years after MDC opened its doors, Pumariega will lead the College she once attended and worked for, becoming its fifth – and first woman – president even as a worldwide pandemic challenges the very future of higher education.

President Pumariega, 53, stressed her hometown roots when interviewing for the job. “I’m still that girl from Hialeah,” she assured the seven-member Board of Trustees. An alumna, Pumariega returned to teach and rose to president of MDC’s Wolfson Campus by the end of her 20-year tenure.

While her local familiarity struck a chord, it was her three-year term as chancellor of the Florida College System that gave her the edge, carrying with it the promise of valuable Tallahassee connections so important to MDC – the largest and most diverse institution of higher learning in the United States.

“It’s been a long process, and I don’t think we could’ve ended up in a better place,” said Board Chair Michael Bileca, who joined the other trustees in their unanimous vote. The 19-month national search was stopped and restarted, aiming to replace Eduardo J. Padrón, who stepped down in August 2019 following a quarter-century of service as president.

President Pumariega marveled at how far she has come, and pledged to tackle both the challenges and opportunities MDC faces in a time of declining enrollment, uncertain funding and social disruption due to COVID-19.

“America is great,” she said. “Only could a daughter of Cuban immigrants dream today to be back at her alma mater, where she started as a basketball player, to lead Miami Dade College.”

President Pumariega, who spent the last 18 months as executive vice president and provost of Tallahassee Community College, is expected to start the new job in January. She is a proven leader in student success, workforce innovation and higher-education policy. She said that her passion for changing lives and making a difference syncs with MDC’s mission of providing opportunity to all.

“I can’t think of a more important time in our history for democracy and serving,” she told the Board. “MDC is where democracy lives, breathes and thrives.”

President Pumariega began her studies at MDC and returned to the College, where she spent two decades in progressively responsible positions. During her time as Wolfson Campus president, she helped grow the College’s Miami Culinary Institute and launch The Idea Center. She was also instrumental in supporting workforce programs by leveraging key partnerships in the community.

Challenges, Opportunities Ahead for MDC

One of Pumariega’s immediate goals for MDC is to increase recognition of student mental health needs. She also has to deal with fallout from the pandemic, which has kept campuses quiet and moved many classes to online formats. But changes in the employment landscape also are providing an opportunity for the College to kick-start robust new job training efforts for in-demand careers.

President Pumariega also said MDC must continue its responsibility to serve as an economic, cultural and civic leader for the advancement of Miami’s diverse global community. Longer term, she said the College must focus on financial sustainability and ensuring student and financial success well into the future, as projections for the year 2026 predict a peak in high school graduates followed by an aggressive decline.

“How will we turn vision into reality?” she asked. “We will do it together and through leadership; we will create trust and build relationships.”

Interim Leadership in Steady Hands

President Pumariega succeeds Dr. Rolando Montoya, a popular and respected leader who returned to MDC as interim president. Montoya had retired as provost for operations in 2017, and previously served the College in various ascending capacities between 1987 and 2017.

“I am grateful to the committee members and our Board that worked so hard to find a new, permanent president for our beloved institution,” said Montoya, who received a hearty standing ovation after the Board vote. “I feel confident that I am leaving MDC in good hands.”

The College has been lauded for its transformational work in student success and achievement. Those efforts have led to significant improvements in retention and graduation and earned MDC the 2019 Aspen Award for Community College Excellence.

Today, MDC’s retention and graduation rates for all students, and in particular for minority students, exceed the national average.

Ready for the Challenge

President Pumariega holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and is a doctoral candidate at Barry University. Prior to joining TCC, she was president of Take Stock in Children, a statewide nonprofit focused on breaking the cycle of poverty through education.

She plans to host a series of forums in January to hear from staff and faculty.

“It is an honor and a privilege to be selected to lead Miami Dade College, one of the country’s finest higher education institutions and a true beacon of hope for this community,” she said. “I look forward to serving MDC, its students, faculty and staff, and working together to achieve more than we ever thought was possible.”

–Abel Folgar