TAMPA —Even as they named him front-runner in their search for a new president, trustees at Hillsborough Community College said they didn't know Kenneth Atwater quite well enough.
Atwater, president of South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, seemed like a good candidate to continue the course set by retiring president Gwendolyn W. Stephenson, trustees said.
"Dr. Atwater, I feel, is actually more of an unknown" than some of HCC's other finalists, trustee Nancy Watkins said. What she knew of Atwater she liked, and she felt like he would be a good fit for HCC, but "I want to get to know him better."
As they become better acquainted with Atwater, they'll learn about a leader with a focus on student success, a strong reputation for reaching out to the community and one question mark on his record when it comes to politics.
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Atwater, 58, was born and grew up in Jackson, Tenn., the youngest of three sons. His mother worked in a department store. His father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority and had a concrete subcontracting business on the side.
"Neither one of my parents were college graduates, but they always had a very high emphasis on education," he said.
After college, Atwater returned to his hometown and started as a counselor at Jackson State Community College, working his way up to dean of student affairs.
He went on to earn a doctorate and has been a community college administrator for 27 years, with experience in Michigan, Maryland and South Carolina.
In Atwater's nine years at South Mountain, enrollment has grown 30 percent. As president, he has realigned academic departments and forged partnerships with local organizations.
All of it, he said, was done with one goal in mind.
"I think I've created an environment and a culture here at the college that really supports student success," he said.
Around Phoenix, Atwater gets high marks as an ambassador for his college, a creative fundraiser and a leader who seeks advice from a wide range of people.
Arizona state House Majority Whip John McComish praised Atwater's "very warm yet forceful personality."
"He's always campaigning for South Mountain College and trying to promote the school," McComish said. Along the way, he said, Atwater has built effective partnerships with the city, state, public school system and local businesses.
Through one such partnership, the city of Phoenix and South Mountain are building a library on campus for students and the public.
South Mountain's four campuses are located in a diverse swath of greater Phoenix, from poor Hispanic and Yaqui Indian communities to suburbs emerging from farmland to established affluent neighborhoods.
Atwater has done well to address the needs of each area, working with businesses and setting up a program to produce Spanish-speaking nurses, among other things, McComish said.
"It's one of those bittersweet kind of things," said consultant Michael Kelly, a former senior policy adviser to the mayor of Phoenix. "We love and respect and appreciate Dr. Atwater. We would hate to lose him."
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Several years ago, Atwater faced questions about his decision to hire the daughter of U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix.
In 2007, the Arizona Republic reported that Atwater once hosted a political fundraiser for Pastor at his home, that Laura Pastor scored lower in hiring evaluations than another candidate for the job and that Atwater requested approval for two salary exceptions for her. As a result, she started at $66,000 a year after the college had advertised a top salary of $50,378.
Pastor had funneled millions of dollars in grants to a scholarship program his daughter was hired to run, the paper reported.
An internal investigator for the Maricopa County community college system concluded that Laura Pastor's hiring broke no rules and violated no policies, but looked like patronage, according to the Republic.
"It was not political patronage," Atwater told the St. Petersburg Times. Pastor was unaware his daughter applied for a job at the college, and Atwater said he never felt pressure from the legislator's office to hire her.
When hiring, the college often selects a group of three candidates who all could do the job, and Laura Pastor was in such a group, Atwater said. She was qualified, and her salary was based on an assessment of her relevant experience.
"The process used was very fair and equitable," he said. "Truly, she has the qualities to do the job and is doing the job very effectively."
McComish, a Republican, recalled there was no wrongdoing uncovered, but the decision didn't "pass the headline test."
"I'm not aware of anything else," he said, "and if that's the worst stumble that anybody ever made, I don't think it's a very bad one."
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During campus forums last month, Atwater wowed many at HCC with his thoughtfulness, communication skills and background in student services.
"Extremely articulate in addressing the challenge of a multi-campus, multi-accredited institution," Julie Redcay, HCC's grants manager, wrote on a comment form after one forum.
Some at HCC wondered about Atwater's readiness to run a college the size of HCC. South Mountain is about one-fourth the size of HCC, which has 44,000-plus students — more than Florida State University.
That would not be a problem, Atwater said. South Mountain is part of a countywide system of 10 community colleges that, like HCC, answer to a board and have more than 260,000 students.
"My college is small, but I work in a system on a daily basis that is very large," he said. "I think those are attributes that would be assets for me as I make the transition to Hillsborough."
One HCC trustee, Plant City lawyer Daniel Coton, visited South Mountain last week. After he reports back, trustees will decide whether to negotiate a contract or revisit their search.
HCC's other remaining finalist is Myrtle Dorsey, 57, chancellor of Baton Rouge Community College in Louisiana. Two others, Mark Rocha of West Los Angeles College and Anthony Tricoli of Georgia Perimeter College near Atlanta, have dropped out.
During its search, HCC has not set a pay range for the job, but Stephenson's salary and benefits total about $333,000 a year. Atwater now makes about $200,000 annually.
Stephenson, 66, is scheduled to retire in June. In her 13 years, she has stabilized HCC's finances, healed its morale, dramatically expanded its facilities and delivered more scholarships.
And Atwater is the kind of leader who appears able to build on that record, several trustees have said. At the meeting where he was unanimously named the college's leading candidate, they said another of the applicants might have been the choice if they wanted someone to make a lot of changes. But they don't.
Atwater, said Rod Jurado, the trustees' chairman, has an interest in work force development, broad knowledge about community colleges and an amazing optimism about education in general.
"I'd like to find out a little more about Dr. Atwater myself," he said.