Fifty years is such a short period of time in the lives of institutions, particularly educational institutions. Seventy-five institutions worldwide have been in business for 800 years or more, and most of them are colleges and universities. It takes a long time, indeed, generations, to build a great school — to attract and sustain a great faculty, develop a great academic program, and foster a strong alumni and volunteer community support system: It is a long, long process.
And yet, and yet — colleges and universities can be so vulnerable, particularly private institutions operating without a public funding safety net. They are vulnerable not simply in terms of institutional survival, but vulnerable in terms of their missions, goals, and aspirations — each of which is in danger of being forgotten, altered or abandoned as time and money wreak their stern demands.
Florida Presbyterian College, now Eckerd College, along with its mission, its goals and aspirations — in fact, its very survival — has been vulnerable essentially since its birth, 50 years ago. So, this weekend Eckerd College is celebrating three things:
First, our very survival for 50 years;
Second, our continual and uninterrupted focus — in good times and bad — on our mission of providing first-rate, innovative, values-based undergraduate education; and
Third, the growing strength of our school, in every qualitative and quantitative way, symbolized by the successes so far of our 50th anniversary capital campaign, "Many Experiences, One Spirit": We have already raised $65-million in the "quiet phase" of our campaign.
Arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court almost 200 years ago on behalf of his alma mater, Daniel Webster said of Dartmouth College, "She is only a small school, but there are those who love her." The same could be said of Eckerd College, which has meant so much to so many.
But why should others care? Why should Floridians care about a private school more expensive than the many, usually very large, public colleges and institutions of the state? As a graduate of two very large public universities, and formerly a vice president at another, I would have asked the same question a few years ago.
My answer now has four parts:
• Eckerd College, like its counterpart traditional liberal arts colleges, is a residential college — which means that most of its students live on campus in a living-learning environment. The residential dimension of our educational experience is as important as the classroom dimension. Therefore, our undergraduate experience is very different from that of a public university in which 80 percent or more of the students live off campus.
• Eckerd is focused on quality, not quantity, an orientation reflected in our size (1,800 traditional-aged students and 900 students in our adult-education program), our 13-1 student-faculty ratio, and our focus only on undergraduates. Schools with graduate programs have different priorities, and undergraduate education inevitably becomes secondary. Our technological sophistication recently ranked seventh in the country in PC Magazine; and Eckerd was one of the youngest colleges in the nation to be awarded a Phi Beta Kappa Chapter, a sure indication of quality for a liberal arts program. Our students' scores on the National Survey of Student Engagement are among the highest in the nation.
• Eckerd College is global, ranked first in a study reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education for international study. Most of our students study abroad, and all of them experience the global dimension of their academic extracurricular and residential programs on campus. This level of international activity exceeds that of the average public university by 75 percent or better.
• The student body of Eckerd College reflects the diversity of 21st century life, with students from 45 states and more than 30 countries.
In short, partly because liberal arts colleges are so rare in the Southeastern United States, Eckerd College is important to Florida because it is an example of a higher education experience many in this part of the country know little about. While large universities provide unparalleled training for graduate students and research programs, and community colleges provide an inexpensive option for taking college-level courses, liberal arts colleges provide an intensive undergraduate educational experience that most public colleges simply cannot afford to match (our average cost per student is roughly what an out-of-state student would pay to a state college).
Add to that the incomparable advantage of being located in beautiful St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Mexico, and the result is a college with a very bright future, with much to offer Floridians — and the world.
Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg.