ST. PETERSBURG — The local community college had already made a name for itself when William Law Jr. first arrived on campus in the early 1980s as a vice president. Still, the school, then named St. Petersburg Junior College, was just a shadow of the sprawling state college it would later become.
When Law returned in 2010 as the new leader of St. Petersburg College, he took that expansion further. He worked to deepen community ties and brought the celebrated Midtown Campus to life with a focus on leveling the educational playing field. He broadened the college's baccalaureate degrees and workforce programs and expanded its faculty. And with quick-talking candor, he imbued the president's suite with a passion for metrics, public policy and SPC students.
After seven years at the helm and many decades in higher education, retirement called. Longtime SPC employee Tonjua Williams will take the reins in July.
This week, as Law, 68, prepared for his last day on today, the Tampa Bay Times sat down with him to talk about his tenure. This interview has been condensed.
As SPC's leader, what were your goals and points of pride?
My predecessor Carl Kuttler, God love him, he did a great job, but everything got decided off of his desk. I was here about three weeks when I was signing a voucher to authorize hotdogs and Coke for the Clearwater campus welcome back event. I called the vice president and said, "How did this get to my desk?" We got all of that squared away, empowering people to do their job.
I told the campus provosts, I want something called a college experience. What does a student have the right to expect when they set foot on the college? That turned out to be face-to-face orientation, electronic learning plans, enhanced career counseling, an early alert system for students in trouble and the expansion of college learning centers for academic help.
We focused on students. The lawyers had taken over. You couldn't get yourself registered. It was an all-day affair. There was this form, that form, a form to say you'd seen all the forms. We just started tearing that stuff out left and right.
That was a big surprise to me because I had always seen this college as student-focused. There were a lot of things that needed to change.
An example is the activity fee students pay. I said, "Students ought to have a say in how that's spent. It's their money." I was asked, "Are you sure?" I said, "Keep your hands off of it." Now students call it "the Dr. Law money."
I'm also really proud of how the college has made stronger relationships with the community. Opening the Midtown Center was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The best days of that center are still over the horizon.
The faculty make me so proud, the way they reach their students. They take my breath away.
What are the biggest issues SPC faces?
When people are going to work, enrollment goes down. But that's not a good assessment for the community. Who in their right mind thinks the job they're in is going to be the same job in five years? SPC is now 60 percent women. I don't know where the young men are. It's scary.
The faculty are feeling a great deal of stress and pressure. Most are doing the very best they can. Some students are woefully not ready. We have students who can barely do arithmetic, and we're hoping we can get them to do college algebra in two semesters. It's a hard, hard job.
The dialogue has to be, how are you going to modify your teaching? Here are the students we have. If you're waiting for better students to show up — it's not going to happen.
What's next for you?
I'm still on two national boards, but I'm not sure how I'm going to spend all my time. I have two grandsons. I'll do some consulting. I still run. I've done 35 marathons — I might have one or two left in me.
My wife, Pat, and I are going to walk the Camino de Santiago in October. We will walk for 35 days, for 500 miles. Catholic pilgrims have been walking it for 1,000 years.
What strengths will Tonjua Williams bring to the presidency?
She is one of the quickest learners ever. She's done every job at the college, she knows everybody and she has huge equanimity. I suffer fools really poorly. She has the patience of Job.
The success we had with the college experience was really Tonjua's success, getting the provosts to see a different vision for themselves. She has strong national credentials, at least as good as I have, and really gets the role of online education. She's straightforward, unflappable.
She's not another Bill Law. She doesn't want to be, and I'm glad that's the case.
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.