ST. PETERSBURG — Midwestern State University had been looking for two years for a person to run its science and math college.
When the small, public liberal arts school in Texas interviewed Betty Stewart in 2006, the search went no further.
"It was not hard to convince us that she was the best candidate we had," said university president Jesse Rogers. "I honestly believe that one day, Betty will be the president of a university."
Stewart's latest move may be a step in that direction. She will become Eckerd College's dean of faculty and vice president of academic affairs this summer.
Stewart, a biochemist and research scientist, starts her new job July 1. She will be the first woman to hold the post of dean of faculty, and the first African-American to serve on the college's executive staff.
It's not unfamiliar ground for Stewart, who also was the first black female dean at Midwestern.
Stewart said she's happy to be a role model, but doesn't want to make a big deal of her race and gender.
"For me, it's about leading," she said recently at a welcome reception hosted for her at Eckerd. "It's about the opportunity here."
The opportunity also comes with a lot of responsibility.
Stewart is succeeding Lloyd Chapin, who is retiring June 30 after 31 years at the college. She will be responsible for all academic programs, will hire all faculty and will work at the right hand of president Donald Eastman.
"It is the key academic job," Eastman said.
Stewart already has made an impression on some of the college's students, who met her during a breakfast forum a couple of months ago. After Stewart spoke, all the students applauded, something they hadn't done after similar forums with the other two finalists for the job.
"She wasn't sitting there throwing her credentials at us. She never came off as arrogant," said Katie Pfeiffer, a 22-year-old Ford Scholar who graduated this spring and was on the search committee. "I think she will make the administration more visible to students."
Stewart agreed that connecting with students is a priority. She said her own college experience was enriched by getting to work one on one with faculty members.
"I didn't move into administration to move away from students," she said.
She graduated with a biochemistry degree from Mississippi State University in 1982 and a Ph.D. in protein biochemistry from Carnegie Mellon University four years later. Before Midwestern, she was a professor and chairwoman of chemistry at Austin College, a leading liberal arts school that, like Eckerd, is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.
She said her No. 1 priority when she gets to Eckerd will be helping the college prepare for the re-accreditation process. She also will focus on supporting Eckerd's faculty mentoring program and the new Center for Molecular and Life Sciences building, which is tentatively scheduled for a construction start in 2011.
Those who know her say she should have no problem.
In Texas, Rogers said, Stewart wowed officials and students in her job as head of the College of Science and Mathematics. She started a summer research program that pairs students with professors, helped institute a mechanical engineering program and oversaw the construction of a new building on campus.
"She is one of the finest deans we've had," Rogers said. "We all hate to lose Betty."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.