David Ruffer, a college president who has used ice cream socials and other old-fashioned ideas to rebuild morale at the University of Tampa (UT), will be inaugurated today as the private university's ninth president.
Almost every college president gets a honeymoon when he or she is new, but Ruffer's first six months at UT seem to have brought a great sigh of affectionate relief to the campus community.
Not that he _ and they _ don't face some challenges.
Along with the normal financial pressures faced nowadays by many colleges and universities, UT began this academic year with a shortfall of students, which meant a 15 percent budget cut. Salaries for UT professors already lagged behind the national average. Some teachers also say the scramble for students has lowered admissions standards.
But Ruffer (pronounced Roof-er) has faced all this with a mixture of candor, shared leadership and old-fashioned optimism. Professors and campus boosters find that refreshing.
"The difference this year," said faculty chairman Emilio Toro, reflecting on UT's continuing financial struggles, "is that at least an explanation was made of why we were forced to undertake these cuts. They may not be pleasant to take, but at least an explanation was made, and I think that makes the difference."
The campus mood today is a marked contrast to a year ago, when outgoing president Bruce Samson faced a disgruntled faculty and the threat of a class-action lawsuit from students who believed the university had reneged on promised financial aid.
Samson had given up a lucrative job as an investment banker in Tampa to become UT's president in 1986. The university had suffered several years of alarming deficits, and Samson was widely credited with putting UT back on a solid financial footing. But he was also criticized by many for an autocratic style that didn't sit well in academe.
Samson will be among the dignitaries present when Ruffer's inauguration begins at 1:30 p.m. in the Falk Theater, across the street from UT's historic campus on Kennedy Boulevard.
So will Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, who was among the local business leaders who helped in the search that brought Ruffer to Tampa. The indoor ceremonies will be followed by an outdoor reception in Plant Park.
UT was founded 59 years ago, in the depths of the Depression, by community leaders who wanted to provide an opportunity for local students who couldn't afford to go away to college. It is housed in the former Tampa Bay Hotel, a turn-of-the-century resort admired for its distinctive mix of Victorian and Moorish architecture.
Over the years, UT attracted a wider range of students from Florida, other states and abroad, but more than a third of its 14,750 living alumni reside in the Tampa Bay area. Earlier this week, about 250 of them had registered for alumni homecoming, which was scheduled to coincide with the inauguration.
As president, Ruffer's challenge is not only to lead the faculty in a restructuring of UT's curriculum and to keep the finances in order, but also to help UT claim its place in Florida's broader educational setting. The school also needs to increase its private endowment so that it is not so dependent upon each year's student tuition.
"I think the most remarkable thing is the speed with which (Ruffer) has moved into his job, not only on campus but also in establishing a liaison _ you might say a visibility _ for himself and the university in the community," said Girard F. Anderson, president of Tampa Electric Co. and chairman of UT's Board of Trustees.
Anderson, a Tampa native but not a UT alumnus, said he has always respected the role the UT plays in Tampa, as a convenient and more personal alternative to the larger state universities, including Tampa's University of South Florida.
"Any private university has to set itself apart from the state system," Anderson said. "There are obvious differences in cost, so there have to be obvious differences in the services we offer."
UT has about 2,400 students, most of them undergraduates.
Ruffer, a biologist who was president of Albright College in Pennsylvania for 12 years, has asked UT to focus its attention on the liberal arts, which he calls the best career preparation a student could want in fast-changing times. When fewer students showed up for classes than the university had counted on last fall, he said candidly that perhaps UT should plan on fewer students for a while.
Most importantly, perhaps, Ruffer has spent much of his first six months listening, both on and off campus. He can be seen frequently on campus, attending lectures, concerts and other events. He likes talking to students. He started a monthly ritual of Friday afternoon ice-cream socials, to which faculty and staff are invited to ask questions about whatever interests them.
Toro, the faculty leader, says Ruffer has definite opinions and values, but he looks for ways to blend them with the opinions of others who are already working on campus.
"The point is that he sees himself as a member of this community, and he wants to participate in the life of this community," Toro said. "That can be enormously valuable to a university."