Sandra Featherman of Highland Beach has spent much of her life as an educator, including 11 years as president of the University of New England in southern Maine. She recently wrote a book about solving problems in higher education in this country. “I care about education,” she says. “I really care.” Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
Here in South Florida, especially in Highland Beach, Sandra Featherman is known mostly as the wife of the town’s previous mayor, Bernard Featherman.
Go north to Maine, however, where the couple lived for many years, or to Philadelphia, where she grew up, and you’ll discover Sandra Featherman is well known in her own right.
“Here I am Bernard Featherman’s wife,” she says. “In Maine, I’m President Featherman.”
The title comes from her 11 years as president of the University of New England, a private university in southern Maine, between Kennebunkport to the south and Portland to the north.
Although she left the university in 2006, Featherman remains president emeritus and is still recognized for her accomplishments, that include overseeing substantial growth at the school.
To label Featherman, 83, as “just” a college president, however, would be an injustice. She is also a well-respected political scientist, an author of books and more than 50 professional papers, a television- and radio-show host, a social activist and a philanthropist.
Even now, after more than a decade of retirement, Featherman stays busy serving as a commissioner of accreditation for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
In Florida, she is on the board of Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland and the board of Gulf Stream School.
Her understanding of higher education is based on decades of experience, including four years as vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of Minnesota in Duluth.
That experience helped her as she wrote her recent book, Higher Education at Risk: Strategies to Improve Outcomes, Reduce Tuition, and Stay Competitive in a Disruptive Environment.
Featherman is well regarded as a political scientist with a knack for accurately predicting election outcomes, especially local elections. She did not try to predict the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, however, believing it would be too close to call.
“I’m a very good election prognosticator,” she says. “I understand politics, it’s in my bones.”
Her skills earned her regular election-night appearances on local television stations and to being quoted in newspapers across the country, including The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
As an activist in the areas of education, women’s rights and civil rights, Featherman has joined and led many organizations, including the presidency of the PTA of Philadelphia while her two sons were growing up. She also served on the board of the Community College of Philadelphia for 21 years, including a stint as chair.
“I care about education,” she said. “I really care.”
Part of that stems from her upbringing in a household where her mother struggled after the death of her father when she was in her late teens.
“We were very poor when I went to college,” she said. “I saw education as a way forward for everybody.”
Although she says she is selective in the causes she supports both with participation and philanthropy, Featherman still stays involved in many organizations.
“I can’t help it,” she says. “It’s who I am. When I see a problem, I want to fix it.”
If there is a reward for her efforts, it is the sense of accomplishment and pride she gets knowing she has had an impact.
“I’m very proud of the fact that people will still write me and tell me I’ve made a serious difference in their lives,” she said.
Q. Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A. I grew up in Philadelphia and went to school there, at the University of Pennsylvania. Growing up in the city gave me a very urban-oriented sense of the world.
Q. What professions have you worked in? What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
A. During college, I worked part-time for a community newspaper. I later taught math in public schools for a few years. I have spent most of my career as a college professor and administrator. I am proud of building the institutions where I served, and I am particularly proud of the active role I have taken on behalf of women’s rights.
I have participated in and delivered presentations on women’s and other human rights issues at numerous colleges and organizations across the United States, and have given talks or delivered papers in many other countries, including Kenya, France, England, Israel and Russia, among others.
Q. What advice do you have for a young person selecting a career today?
A. Choose to do something you love. It is hard to commit to a career you don’t care deeply about.
Q. How did you choose to make your home in Highland Beach?
A. My husband’s brother had lived in Highland Beach before we moved here, and we each had cousins living here. We had visited them a lot of times and loved it here.
Q. What is your favorite part about living in Highland Beach?
A. The people are great. We have made a lot of friends here. And, as many people say, living in Highland Beach is a little bit like living in heaven.
Q. What book are you reading now?
A. I have just finished Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn, which was my favorite book of the year. It is poetic and powerful.
Q.What music do you listen to when you need inspiration? When you want to relax?
A. I love all music, but especially show music and jazz, and relax with Mozart and Beethoven.
Q. Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A. I grew up before women had mentors. I have tried to mentor a number of promising women. My own role model was Eleanor Roosevelt, who I met when I was 19 years old. She spoke at a political rally I had organized at my college. She gave me the privilege of sitting with her on the drive to her train afterwards.
Q. If your life story were made into a movie, who would you want to play you?
A. Ingrid Bergman, if she were still living.
Q. Who/what makes you laugh?
A. I laugh a lot. I love comedy that is not foul-mouthed, ethnic, racist, homophobic or anti-feminist.