Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

HCC president Gwen Stephenson to retire next year

TAMPA — Before Gwendolyn W. Stephenson took over Hillsborough Community College in 1997, the place had an air of paranoia, tension and poor morale.

Community leaders were concerned, and HCC's accreditation was in jeopardy.

But Stephenson, who on Friday announced plans to retire, engineered a remarkable turnaround. The college's finances stabilized. Employee complaints of intimidation and retaliation dropped. Work began on new programs and facilities.

The progress was so broad and deep that about two years ago, when HCC's accreditation was renewed, reviewers didn't make a single suggestion for improvement.

Across Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler took notice. Hoping to ensure that his own college's review went as well, Kuttler took a van full of people to HCC and spent three hours asking Stephenson how she did it.

"She helped guide us, and a lot of it is very technical," he said. "I appreciated her leadership on that.''

That is one sign of the reputation Stephenson has built during her 12 years as president of a school with an operating budget of about $100 million and 45,000-plus students — more than Florida State University — on five campuses.

"She had a major impact," said former state Rep. and Sen. Les Miller. "My office back then, before she got in, was bombarded with many, many complaints. When she got there, it just seemed to mellow out. Things changed."

Stephenson, 66, announced her June 2010 retirement plans Friday morning during a meeting for all full-time HCC employees on the Plant City campus.

"There are cycles in every organization, as in life, and the art of leading well, as in living well, is to recognize a new cycle struggling to emerge," she said.

Stephenson, whose salary and benefits total about $333,000 a year, said announcing her retirement plans now will give college trustees time to launch a national search to find a new president.

An educator and psychologist, Stephenson came to HCC from a job as chancellor of the much larger St. Louis Community College, which she also led out of serious financial and image problems.

While observers give Stephenson's tenure high marks, HCC has encountered a few bumps along the way: a developer's proposal that was too good to be true, a dustup with preservationists in Ybor City and a computer system that, when stressed, is prone to fainting spells.

Still, during her tenure, HCC has:

• Created more than 170 new academic programs.

• Built a 420-bed student apartment complex on its Dale Mabry campus.

• Opened its fifth campus, the SouthShore Center in Ruskin. Officials say it is Florida's first community college campus to receive a gold-level certified green designation from the U.S. Green Building Council.

• Acquired 123 additional acres for college use, built 470,000 square feet in new construction and renovated or remodeled 438,000 square feet.

What Stephenson did not do was follow the lead of other community colleges, which increasingly are trying shed their two-year images and offer four-year degrees.

Instead, HCC continues to focus on conferring two-year degrees and providing technical and work force education.

With the University of South Florida up the road, Hillsborough students already have access to four-year degrees, so HCC has decided not to duplicate that.

"There's a better way to use our resources," college spokeswoman Ashley Carl said.

In recent years, HCC has customized training programs for employers such as Verizon and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute. This year, the college launched an initiative to recruit more foreign students and develop a curriculum with a more international focus.

Kuttler, who said St. Petersburg College's four-year programs are geared toward meeting work force needs, said he understands HCC's vision. If he had USF's main campus so close by, he might feel the same way, he said.

The head of HCC's faculty union gives Stephenson credit for stabilizing the college's finances and building its foundation, allowing for the distribution of more than $3.5 million in scholarships.

"The opportunities for scholarships for students have just skyrocketed since she arrived," said union president Liana Fernandez Fox, who teaches math on HCC's Ybor City campus.

That doesn't mean the place is perfect. On Friday, a notice on HCC's Web site warned of slowdowns on the college's computer system because of "extremely heavy registration usage."

Improving HCC's information technology should be a priority for its next president, Fox said.

"Oh. My. God," she said. "We are tremendously frustrated and embarrassed that all work virtually stops when registration starts. It is the point of highest frustration for most folks at this point: faculty, staff, students, and, I would have to say, administrators as well. I think we've dragged our feet on that."

There have been a few other hiccups. Last year, college trustees declined to extend negotiations with a developer who wanted to build an ambitious sports-medicine complex on HCC property. The decision came after the St. Petersburg Times reported that the developer had overstated his credentials and partners' support for three years.

And this spring, Stephenson apologized for not seeking broader input after historic preservationists complained that HCC's planned student services center was too modern for Ybor.

But compared with the old days, when a consultant reported that HCC employees complained of widespread profanity, perceived threats and racial tension, the place is much improved, longtimers say, and Stephenson deserves the credit.

"The stories for HCC have pretty much been positive while she's been president," Fox said, "and for that, we're all very grateful, those of us who have been at the college for 30 years or more."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at or (813) 226-3403.

HCC president Gwen Stephenson to retire next year 10/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 16, 2009 11:31pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Buccaneers defense was among NFL's best when its pressure got to the QB


    It doesn't matter how many times they've thrown a football. It doesn't matter how many seasons they've played. It doesn't matter whether they have a degree from Harvard or Central Florida.

    Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recorded 6.5 sacks last season, but many of his other contributions didn't show up in the box scores. [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]

  2. What you need to know for Thursday, June 29


    Catching you up on overnight happenings, and what you need to know today.

    See that thing in the water? No? That's the point. It's that time of the year when stingrays are often lurking in the sand, often not visibly. Remember to do the stingray shuffle if you're out at the beach this weekend. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
  3. Pinellas beaches seeing fewer injuries from stingrays, but the summer is still young


    FORT DE SOTO — Rebecca Glidden leaned back in her lifeguard chair, watching behind sunglasses as families splashed in the water at Fort De Soto's North Beach.

    A Clearwater water safety supervisor demonstrates the stingray shuffle. Pinellas beaches are reporting relatively few injuries from stingrays so far this year, but they anticipate more as the summer wears on. Officials are reminding beachgoers to do the shuffle when they enter the water and keep an eye out for purple flags flying from the lifeguard towers, which indicate stingray activity. [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]
  4. Weeki Wachee River advocates agree to work to resolve issues

    Local Government

    WEEKI WACHEE — Degradation of the Weeki Wachee River is a complex mix of circumstances, with a variety of jurisdictions holding the authority to fix the problems. That has made finding solutions over the years more about frustration than success.

    A boat and kayak drift into one another as they share the narrow passage near Rogers Park on the Weeki Wachee River in March. Advocates fear too many vessels are damaging the river.
  5. Despite change in Cuba policy, cruise ships sail on


    TAMPA -- It's smooth sailing for cruises from Tampa to Havana, with the first of Carnival Cruise Line's 12 such excursions launching today, two months after Royal Caribbean's initial voyage from Port Tampa Bay to the island.

    The Empress of the Seas cruise ship docks at the Port Tampa Bay Cruise Terminal 3 in Tampa. President Donald 

Trump's new Cuba policy may not hurt cruises to Havana at all. In fact, it may help these cruises. CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times