TAMPA — The first thing Kenneth Atwater did Tuesday after signing his contract to become Hillsborough Community College's next president was ask an aide to help him set up some meetings.
Atwater said he wants to meet with local United Way and chamber of commerce leaders, plus University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft and St. Petersburg College president Bill Law.
"What does that tell you?" asked Rod Jurado, chairman of the HCC board of trustees. "It tells me he wants to be plugged into the community."
And that's one of the main reasons trustees hired Atwater to succeed Gwendolyn W. Stephenson when she retires as HCC president June 30.
As president of South Mountain Community College in Arizona, Atwater has a record of innovation, working with small businesses and forming partnerships in the community.
"His enthusiasm, his energy is one of the first things you notice," Jurado said.
Atwater, 58, will start July 1. The three-year contract he signed late Tuesday will pay him a base salary of $230,000, plus $55,000 a year for housing, a car and a retirement annuity.
"I am excited about coming to work with these people and this team," Atwater said shortly before the trustees' meeting confirming his appointment.
Trustees chose Atwater from a field of 38, including four high-ranking HCC administrators, who had applied.
Atwater is a native of Jackson, Tenn. His mother worked in a department store. His father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority and had a concrete subcontracting business on the side.
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 in education and has 27 years' experience as an administrator at community colleges in Michigan, Maryland and South Carolina.
At South Mountain, Atwater saw enrollment grow by 30 percent during his nine years as president. He said he has worked to foster student success through a realignment of academic departments and a series of partnerships with local governments, businesses and nonprofit groups.
One of those partnerships led to the construction of a joint city of Phoenix-college library on South Mountain's campus. Atwater also persuaded a private foundation that mostly helps university students to transfer 30 scholarships to South Mountain.
At HCC, Atwater will have a tough act to follow, trustees said.
Prior to Stephenson's hiring, the college's accreditation was in jeopardy. Legislators and community leaders outside the college were concerned about widespread complaints of paranoia, poor morale and employee mistreatment.
"When Dr. Stephenson came in, there were a lot of issues and a lot of things that needed to be done," Jurado said.
But during her 13 years as president, Stephenson has expanded campus facilities, stabilized the college's finances, built its foundation and provided more scholarships for students.
At a celebration Tuesday, employees thanked her for being accessible and supportive as well as for encouraging risk taking. They said she listened well, eased tensions and healed campus divisions. "She's changed the whole institution into an institution that has civility," HCC senior vice president Rob Wolf said.
Stephenson, 66, said she has had mixed feelings about leaving the college but got a "real burst of energy" after meeting with Atwater on Tuesday. "I believe that he is going to take this college to the next level, and that's what I wanted," she said. "I wanted to leave the college in good hands."
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.