This is a weekend of celebration at Eckerd College, the small liberal arts college with a national academic reputation far larger than its modest footprint on the shores of St. Petersburg's southern waterfront. The college's largest fundraising campaign has surpassed its goal of $80 million, president Donald Eastman's contract was to be extended as he completes a decade leading the college, and the 48th commencement ceremonies are today. One of Tampa Bay's hidden jewels shines brighter than ever.
Much of the credit goes to Eastman, who took over a college in crisis in 2001. A risky real estate development on campus had turned sour, and the college's endowment fund had shrunk by more than 60 percent without the board of trustees' knowledge. Within three years, the real estate development was sold and a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society opened on campus. Applications and fundraising were on the rise, and an unwieldy 52-member board of trustees had been reduced to a more active 30 members. If the first five years were spent righting the ship, the next five were aimed at moving forward.
The full sweep of Eckerd College's climb over the last decade is particularly impressive today. Applications have nearly doubled and enrollment has grown by about 20 percent since 2001, to 1,830 students from 50 states and 45 countries. When Eastman took charge, the endowment had dropped to $19 million. Today, the endowment is nearly $46 million, and there are healthy reserves.
The college's campus has seen a similar rebirth. A new library, residence hall and fitness center have opened in recent years, and the chapel and other older facilities have been renovated. The fundraising campaign will pay for a new center for molecular and life sciences building that will be under construction next month. More endowed professorships and scholarships also will be added.
The future looks bright for Eckerd College, which emphasizes personal attention from tenured faculty members in an era of huge class sizes and online courses at Florida's public universities. Eastman, 65, hopes to lead the college another five years. Under his steady hand, the institution should continue to flourish.