Make us your home page
Instagram

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 [email protected] 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

Loading...
  1. Deputies: Wimauma teacher's aide sexually molested teen, 13

    Crime

    A Wimauma teacher's aide faces charges lewd or lascivious molestation after Hillborough County deputies say he inappropriatly touched a 13-year-old girl.

    Sonny Juarez, 29, a teacher's aide in Wimauma, faces charges lewd or lascivious molestation after Hillborough County deputies say he inappropriatly touched a 13-year-old girl on several occasions while working at the RCMA Wimauma Academy, 18236 U.S. 301 S, between November 2016 and March 2017. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]

  2. Tampa Bay deputies head to UF to assist with Richard Spencer's speech

    Public Safety

    Local deputies are heading up to Alachua County in preparation of white nationalist Richard Spencer's speech in Gainesville on Thursday.

    Law enforcement is stepped up in Gainesville on Oct. 18, 2017, ahead of Richard Spencer's appearance. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
  3. Gymnast McKayla Maroney alleges sexual abuse by team doctor

    Olympics

    Two-time Olympic medalist McKayla Maroney says she was molested for years by a former USA Gymnastics team doctor, abuse she said started in her early teens and continued for the rest of her competitive career.

    U.S. gymnast McKayla Maroney poses after completing her routine on the vault during the Artistic Gymnastic women's qualifications at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Maroney posted a statement on Twitter Oct. 18, 2017, in which she said she was molested for years by former Team USA doctor Larry Nassar. [Associated Press]
  4. Top 5 at Noon: Facts on Richard Spencer's Florida visit; Column: Jameis, don't be a hero; Locale Market changes again

    News

    Here are the latest headlines and updates on tampabay.com:

    White nationalist Richard Spencer (C) and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park after the "Unite the Right" rally was declared an unlawful gathering August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Spencer is set to speak at the University of Florida. [Getty]
  5. Bucs Cannon Fodder podcast: Uncertainty surrounds Jameis Winston's health

    Bucs

    Greg Auman talks about the Bucs' quarterback situation, with uncertainty around Jameis Winston's health, in his latest Cannon Fodder podcast.

    Jameis Winston takes the field for warmups before the Bucs' game against the Cardinals Sunday in Glandale, Ariz. [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]