A Penn State chancellor is the new president of Eckerd College: ‘I have big shoes to fill’

Damian Fernandez, 62, will succeed president Donald R. Eastman III, who steps down June 30 after leading the school for 19 years.
Damian J. Fernandez, center, is introduced Monday as the new president of Eckerd College. He will succeed longtime president Donald R. Eastman III on July 1.
Damian J. Fernandez, center, is introduced Monday as the new president of Eckerd College. He will succeed longtime president Donald R. Eastman III on July 1. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Nov. 18, 2019|Updated Nov. 19, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Damian J. Fernandez, a chancellor in the Pennsylvania State University system, will take over as the new president of Eckerd College on July 1, the school announced Monday.

Fernandez, 62, will succeed Donald R. Eastman III, the school’s leader for 19 years who is credited with doubling applications for admission, increasing on-campus housing and adding more robust curriculum options. He steps down June 30.

RELATED: Donald R. Eastman III to retire as president of Eckerd College after 18 years

The search for Eckerd’s fifth president began before the public learned Eastman was leaving and drew 179 applications from around the nation. The process was largely private, so Monday’s announcement was a surprise for most.

Addressing the campus for the first time inside Eckerd’s Fox Hall, Fernandez shared his long-held admiration for the private, liberal arts school. He said although he appeared calm, he was “doing the wild happy dance" inside.

Then he urged those in attendance to partner with him to write the "next chapter of our Eckerd story.”

“This isn’t about me," Fernandez continued. “This is an us moment, of shared values, shared responsibility and shared aspirations. ... Thank you for inviting me to join you in this journey of possibility.”

Since 2016, Fernandez has been the chancellor of The Pennsylvania State University Abington, one of 19 “commonwealth campuses" across Pennsylvania that extend Penn State’s reach beyond its flagship campus in University Park.

He “was instrumental in crafting the school’s strategic plan, expanding the faculty, launching three new degree programs and opening the school’s first residence hall," according to an Eckerd news release. Penn State Abington has about 3,700 students.

Fernandez also has worked as chief executive officer for Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, executive vice president for academic affairs at the State University of New York Purchase College and vice provost of Florida International University. His ties to the Sunshine State include a masters in Latin American studies from the University of Florida and a doctorate in international relations from the University of Miami.

With more than 30 years of experience in higher education, Fernandez said in an interview that he feels ready to build on the legacy Eastman will leave at Eckerd. He wants to continue the school’s commitment to small classes and “structurally flexible” learning, as well as preserve the value placed on student-faculty relationships.

“That’s the magic of an Eckerd College education,” he said, adding that the school pioneered an engaging way of education that is now being pushed by the brain science community and replicated at higher education institutions across the country.

At the same time, Fernandez, a Cuban immigrant who grew up Puerto Rico, said he wants to push for more diversity at the college. He sees room for growth in how the school engages with local and global communities.

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“I would not be where I am today if it were not for people who believed in me,” he said. "I want to open the doors of Eckerd College to so many students who might not know of the opportunities here.”

Fernandez first took interest in Eckerd 45 years ago, as a high school senior in Puerto Rico. He applied and was accepted, but opted for a different route when he earned a spot at Princeton, too.

He fondly recalls his first interaction regarding the job at Eckerd. He was sitting in his office in Pennsylvania one afternoon in June when the phone rang. It was a member of the school’s presidential search committee.

“It was one of those light bulb moments,” Fernandez said. “I thought to myself, 'Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be the president of Eckerd College?’"

The search committee that recruited him was made up of Eckerd trustees, alumni, staff, faculty and Kaitlyn Willgohs, a junior who spoke on behalf the school’s nearly 2,000 students. It assembled nearly a year ago and worked with the Washington, D.C.–based firm Academic Search to find candidates.

Eastman, Eckerd’s current president, praised the process. He said it reinforced the school’s “deep commitment” to shared governance and trust. Eckerd alumnus Ian Johnson, who led the search, said the task was daunting. But only because Eastman’s leadership turned the college into “the envy of the presidential search market.”

“Our search was focused on not just finding the best candidate, but finding the right candidate for Eckerd College,” he said at Monday’s announcement. “We sought a proven and accomplished leader who simply gets Eckerd College, with all its quirkiness and magic and all that is special about us.”

Fernandez was one of three candidates invited to campus for interviews — and finding him to be a “catalytic leader,” the entire committee voted enthusiastically in his favor, Johnson said. “The faculty involved unanimously agreed: He’s the one. Look no further," recalled Suzan Harrison, Eckerd’s vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty.

Trustees confirmed Fernandez as Eastman’s successor on Nov. 9. He was elated but also overwhelmed by the news.

“President Eastman leaves this institution in the most robust position it has ever been,” Fernandez said, sitting in the president’s conference room he will soon take over. “I have big shoes to fill.”