[Times photo: James Borchuck]
Construction is ahead of schedule on Eckerd College's new $13.5-million library. The project is just one indicator of the school's newfound financial footing.
"The turnaround at Eckerd College is not by one grand stroke."
- Donald Eastman
Eckerd College President
ST. PETERSBURG - Donald R. Eastman III knew he would have his hands full when he took over the presidency of Eckerd College three years ago.
The private liberal arts school was in bad financial shape, the result of a failed experiment with real estate development. The debacle, which helped consume more than half of the college's $34-million endowment, forced out Peter Armacost, Eckerd's president for 23 years.
Faculty salaries had to be frozen. Members of the college's board of trustees, who were stunned to learn the endowment had been drained without their knowledge, had to dig into their own pockets to help keep the school afloat.
"It would have been all too easy for those folks to say, "I didn't know about that,' " Eastman, 58, said Tuesday at a meeting of the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club. "Instead they said, "We are responsible. Let's fix it.' And they did."
Three years later, there are no visible signs of distress on the college's 188-acre campus off Boca Ciega Bay. A new $13.5-million library is under construction. A newly awarded chapter of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Society is open and under way.
The school has rid itself of the College Landings residential development that caused it so many problems, selling it for $7.5-million, enough to more than recoup its original investment.
And though the college's $25-million endowment is still below its 2000 levels, Eastman says the school is firmly in the black, and intends to stay that way.
That's a message the former University of Georgia administrator wants put out. Eckerd finished 2003 with a $450,000 surplus, he said, and is on target this year to meet its budget.
Dustin Malcolm arrived at Eckerd three years ago with no idea the school he had chosen to attend was in financial trouble. He says he never thought of leaving.
"We might have to struggle through some things, but in the end, when I get out of here, the school will be much better and my degree will be worth more," says Malcolm, a management and theater major, and president of the Eckerd College Organization of Students.
Despite the salary freeze and small raises that followed, teaching never suffered, says Mark Davis, an Eckerd professor since 1986 and president of the college's Phi Beta Kappa chapter.
He says the relationship between faculty and administrators is much improved.
"We find president Eastman to be very open to faculty input, very collegial in his outlook," Davis says.
The road back had its share of potholes.
Eastman said the first priority was getting rid of $3.2-million in debt. That meant slashing the budget, mostly through salary freezes and hiring slowdowns. The board of trustees helped by raising $16.5-million in cash and pledges, much of it from its own members.
Then the board went to work on itself, cutting its membership from 52 to 30.
Fifteen positions on the board once dedicated to people nominated by the Presbyterian Church, which founded the college in 1958, have been shifted to a Church Relations Council. It acts as a liaison between the college and church.
The board also set out to make sure it wouldn't be broadsided with any more financial surprises. It now conducts routine audits that detail who gave how much to the school and where the money went, said Payton Adams, chair of the board of trustees audit committee.
The school also increased its revenue by raising tuition and fees, and persuading more students to enroll.
Eastman says Eckerd will continue to work at boosting its bottom line.
When the school sold College Landings, one of two risky real estate ventures undertaken by former president Armacost, the announcement was applauded by faculty members, many of whom thought the deal was a major distraction for the college, Davis said.
The other venture, College Harbor, is self-sustaining and will remain connected to Eckerd at least until 2007, when bonds used to buy it can be paid in full, Adams said.
While Eastman is quick to spread the credit for Eckerd's comeback to others, many say his leadership was critical.
"He is building on a foundation that was already in place with a new level of energy and focus," says Grover C. Wrenn, who chaired the search committee that hired Eastman and is vice chairman of the trustees.
For the past year, the college has been reaching out to Presbyterians. It has sponsored lectures featuring religious scholars, helped train Christian educators and taken an interest in the church community by showing up at church-sponsored events.
The Rev. John DeBevoise, an Eckerd graduate and former trustee, credits Eastman with those changes.
"The mind-set of the current president is that the church is his peer dialogue partner as opposed to simply one of the many places where the college might get some support," DeBevoise said.
The college's ambition for the next five to 10 years includes new resident halls, a recreation center and a chapel and Center for Spiritual Life. Eckerd also has embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign, using the same message to tell its story on the Web and in brochures.
"The turnaround at Eckerd College is not by one grand stroke, but by doing a thousand little things," Eastman said Tuesday. "Doing the right things, the right way."
1958: At the urging of Presbyterian Church leaders, the Florida Legislature grants a charter for Florida Presbyterian College. Classes begin two years later in a few buildings at Bayboro Harbor near downtown St. Petersburg. There are 155 students and 22 faculty members.
1963: The college moves into its new home on 267 waterfront acres donated by the city of St. Petersburg south of 54th Avenue S and west of U.S. 19.
1971: Florida drugstore chain founder Jack Eckerd commits $10-million to the struggling school. A year later, Florida Presbyterian becomes Eckerd College.
1977: With the school still struggling financially and enrollment on the decline, a new president, Peter H. Armacost, arrives from Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kan. He begins pushing a plan to develop college-owned land just west of the campus.
1994-96: College Landings and College Harbor, the college's two real estate ventures, enter bankruptcy.
JUNE 2000: The college announces that nearly two-thirds of its endowment had been spent without the knowledge of college trustees. Armacost announces his retirement, and chief financial officer J. Webster Hull resigns.
SEPTEMBER 2000: The chairman of the Eckerd College board of trustees says $16.5-million in cash and pledges has been raised in the school's effort to step back from the brink of financial disaster.
MARCH 2001: Eckerd announces that Donald R. Eastman III, a University of Georgia vice president with a reputation as a planner and fundraiser, will be its new president.
DECEMBER 2002: Eckerd breaks ground on its new $13.5-million library.
AUGUST 2003: Eckerd is awarded a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, the sixth in Florida and one of about 270 nationwide.