TAMPA — An Arizona community college leader emerged Thursday as the leading candidate to become the next president of Hillsborough Community College.
HCC trustees unanimously chose Kenneth Atwater, now president of South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, as the applicant they want to get to know better.
But it's not certain that Atwater will replace HCC president Gwendolyn W. Stephenson, who is scheduled to retire in June. First, the college will send a trustee to Atwater's campus to find out more about him.
Depending on trustee Daniel Coton's report back to the board, trustees could decide to negotiate a contract with Atwater — or look elsewhere.
"It may be that we need to actually stop dead in our tracks and look at another candidate," trustee Nancy Watkins said.
Atwater, 58, has a doctorate in higher education with an emphasis on community colleges from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
In his nine years as president at South Mountain, Atwater has seen the college's enrollment grow 30 percent and has forged partnerships with local organizations in areas like economic development and tech prep/school-to-work initiatives.
Of the other three finalists, West Los Angeles College president Mark Rocha dropped out before Thursday's meeting, telling the college he had another offer.
Trustees said they were impressed with the remaining two candidates, Baton Rouge Community College chancellor Myrtle Dorsey and Georgia Perimeter College president Anthony Tricoli.
But they wondered whether Dorsey would face a big challenge coming from a much smaller school and a state with a different system for governing its colleges.
Tricoli, they said, has a personality and track record that would make him a good president if they wanted to shake things up at HCC, but they said they like the college's direction under Stephenson.
Coton said his sense is that Atwater may be more in Stephenson's mold, not as a leader who would try to steer the institution himself, but one who would hire the right people to do the steering.
South Mountain is about one-fourth the size of HCC, with 10,000 students on four campuses. It has about 700 employees and a $33 million annual budget.
By comparison, HCC has more than 44,000 students, 2,700 employees and an annual operating budget of about $102 million. It has campuses in Tampa, Ybor City, Brandon, Plant City and the SouthShore area of Ruskin.