After nearly 18 years, Donald R. Eastman III, the president credited with transforming St. Petersburg’s Eckerd College, has announced his retirement.
The news came Wednesday afternoon during a campuswide meeting. His last day will be June 30, 2020. But the search for his replacement is already in the works.
“I thought we had the opportunity to go a long way,” Eastman, 73, told the Tampa Bay Times, recalling his mindset about Eckerd when he left the University of Georgia take the president’s job in 2001.
“It has probably exceeded my hopes, but not my aspirations. I am thrilled with our progress.”
Under Eastman’s leadership, applications for admission to Eckerd have more than doubled. More students live on campus than ever before, which leaders cite as one reason for a 10 percent boost in retention.
There are more curriculum options, and the college is on track to soon have 100 percent of students participating in study abroad programs. Facilities across campus have been updated, and the college’s financial standing is strong, Eastman said.
“That growth is a testament to the success of efforts led by the president,” dean of students James Annarelli, who has 29 years at the college, said in an interview.
When Eastman arrived Eckerd, it was on the heels of a major scandal at the college. An internal audit months earlier had found former leadership there had spent millions in endowment funds without authorization.
“The whole place was very shaky," the president said. “People were fearful of the future.”
At the time, Eastman said he planned to make changes to administrative processes that might restore the community’s trust in Eckerd’s leadership. He preached the importance of collaboration right from the start, Annarelli said, always making sure to listen more than he talked.
“He did not join us with a kind of pre-established vision that was divorced from consultation with the existing Eckerd community,” the dean added. “Rather, from the very beginning, he set up means of dialogue with faculty, staff and students to gain their perspective, to learn about their ideas, to come to appreciate their vision.”
Dean of faculty Susan Harrison said Eastman has approached everything at the college with great respect for educators, allowing them to have nearly complete control over curriculum and development of academic programs.
“President Eastman has always had an opinion about almost everything, and he’s quite willing to share,” said Harrison, who has been at Eckerd since 1989. “But he has always thought that listening was one of the most important things.”
Communication and teamwork have been cornerstones of Eckerd’s success, Eastman said. Work by the “very strong team” of people reporting to him is what has made the college thrive.
“I was always proud of our academic standing, but that was never broken,” the president said. “One of the things I am proudest of is that we now have a culture of respect and trust. ... That will keep us steady for a long while."
Eckerd board of trustees chairman John Finneran called Eastman a “visionary leader” in a news release announcing his retirement.
“Eckerd has been transformed financially and physically, with a vision and a sense of purpose that have bolstered and enriched the academic program and the student experience,” he said. “The college today is in tremendous shape and it is well-positioned for continued progress and success.”
A search committee charged with finding Eckerd’s next president already has been established, according to the college. Members will collaborate with Academic Search, a consultant group based in Washington D.C., starting in the spring.
While there is excitement about what is next for Eckerd, saying goodbye to Eastman will be tough for many, Annarelli said. But his contributions will never be forgotten.
“When you look at the various programs that have been added, the buildings that have been built ... the various indexes that demonstrate the colleges success,” the dean said, “one cannot but come away with a clear sense that he is a person that transformed Eckerd College and has brought it to the next level.”
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.