Zolfo, 62, who lives in Smithtown, has worked at Dowling for decades and most recently was interim provost and vice president for corporate programs/continuing education.
"Dr. Zolfo's extensive experience within the collegiate structure combined with her intimate knowledge of Dowling's culture equips her with the ability to preserve our great traditions, while moving forward towards a prosperous future," said board of trustees chairman Michael P. Puorro.
Zolfo's appointment follows the sudden departure last month of president Jeremy Brown.
The Suffolk college has experienced steep enrollment declines, mounting debt and administrative turmoil, a Newsday article detailed last month.
Dowling ran a budget deficit of $977,000 in 2011 and is almost $60 million in debt.
Last week, Moody's Investors Service announced it is reviewing the school's credit rating -- already listed as speculative -- and will decide whether to downgrade it further in about 90 days.
A Dowling spokeswoman said Wednesday that Brown's exit came after a mutual agreement between him and the college.
Brown, previously president of Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, assumed the post of Dowling president in June 2011 and told Newsday in a recent interview that he knew the school "was a turnaround situation" when he took the job.
But now Zolfo will assume that challenge.
"I am delighted to assist the College in this time of transition," Zolfo said in a news release on her appointment. "Dowling's current challenges are no match for the commitment, pride, and hard work of the entire College community."
A September report by a key faculty liaison to Dowling's board of trustees expressed concerns that the school might not survive.
The report, referring to recent layoffs and declining enrollment, also said the college "is a ghost town. . . . The place reeks of poverty and cutbacks."
New York State enrollment figures show that in the fall of 2011, Dowling had a total of 4,416 students, 782 fewer than in 2010.
Zolfo is Dowling's second interim president in the past six years. There also have been three presidents during that time.
Zolfo received a doctorate in educational administration from Dowling, her resume states. She also received an MBA from Adelphi University, a bachelor of arts in psychology from Hofstra University and an Associate in Applied Science degree from Nassau Community College.
In the past, Zolfo has worked as an assistant dean at Suffolk County Community College as well as business manager at Nassau Community College. She also has been an associate business professor at NCC and has served as chairwoman of the Hauppauge Industrial Association.
Before Brown, Scott Rudolph, a trustee who has donated millions to Dowling, served as interim president.