Change first, stability later
By ADAM C. SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. PETERSBURG -- Donald Eastman, Eckerd College's new president, arrived in town this week greeted by torrential, nearly horizontal, rain.
"It was an appropriately turbulent day for my new responsibilities," he quipped Tuesday, as he began learning his way around the waterfront St. Petersburg campus.
Turbulent is an apt word for Eckerd lately. The liberal arts college last year suddenly bid goodbye to its 23-year president, Peter Armacost, amid revelations that most of the school's endowment had been spent without its board's approval or knowledge.
A big part of Eastman's job and challenge is to bring some stability to the long-wobbly financial footing at the school, where tuition runs $19,870 for next year with another $5,415 for room and board. Eastman acknowledged the campus will see little calming affect from his arrival.
"Change is a rough thing for anybody, and this institution has gone through a lot and will go through more," Eastman said, sitting in a temporary office as contractors busily worked at renovating the administration building. "We've had a leader here for 23 years, and change in any event is a big deal. Just somebody new showing up in this office is going to shake things up ... it's going to be a very kinetic time."
Eastman, a 56-year-old former University of Georgia administrator, is a formal man who favors bow ties and speaks slowly and thoughtfully. But as he greeted summer students and custodial staff Tuesday, he also showed an easy smile and a sense of humor.
He spoke with some passion about the quality of Eckerd's undergraduate education and its history of innovative programs.
While his predecessor was often portrayed as autocratic, Eastman said he expects to encourage widespread faculty and staff involvement in decisionmaking. At meetings, Eastman refuses to sit at the head of the table, because he believes it evokes authority and can hamper free discussion.
He's busy learning everything he can about the school and community (he is currently relishing Bruce Stephenson's book, Visions of Eden, about St. Petersburg's history of planning and development) and said he does not yet have a detailed agenda. But personnel changes are likely, as well as physical changes to the campus.
The top priority, though, is getting a handle on finances, and Eastman struck an optimistic tone on that. The endowment, which had been quietly depleted by more than nearly $20-million, is on track to be fully restored to roughly $34-million by the summer of 2003.
What's more, in a few months he hopes Eckerd will sell off College Landings, its real estate development that has steadily bled money from the college. No contract has been signed, but Eastman said a subsidiary of Duke Energy Corp. is interested in buying it. Eckerd also plans to jettison its College Harbor retirement center, though that will take longer.
Those side ventures were among the most controversial and least successful initiatives of former president Armacost. Eastman said they illustrated "the dark side of innovation" and noted that selling off those projects will eliminate debt, and make it easier for Eckerd to finance other capital projects that were funded out of the endowment. As it stands, Eckerd's credit rating has shrunk to junk bond status.
"The events of the last year have obviously shaken up a lot of folks -- and rightly so," he said of the endowment troubles. "We simply need to develop the kind of administrative and managerial oversight that reassures our various constituencies."
A native of Virginia, Eastman graduated from the University of Tennessee magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in English and philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Florida, and has taught English, poetry and fiction. He worked as an administrator at Cornell University and at the University of Georgia, where he was extensively involved in fundraising and strategic planning.
He and his wife, Chris, are living in a newly created president's home at College Landings.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
South Pinellas desks