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 [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.