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Eckerd College president steps down early

Monday’s departure of Damian Fernandez after just two years is part of a trend as many higher education leaders feel burnout.
Eckerd College president Damian J. Fernandez in November 2019. He announced in June that he would step down today.
Eckerd College president Damian J. Fernandez in November 2019. He announced in June that he would step down today. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 1|Updated Aug. 1

Eckerd College president Damian Fernandez will step down Monday, just two years into his term, and vice president for student life and dean of students James Annarelli will take over as the St. Petersburg school’s interim leader.

Fernandez, who was hired in late 2019 and started the following July, announced last month in a letter to the Eckerd community his intent to depart earlier than the three or four years he had expected to serve. He joins a large number of college and university presidents across the country who have left their posts over the past two years.

Among them was University of South Florida president Steve Currall, who stepped down last August after two years, citing the stresses of the job.

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

“I accomplished the work with a tremendous team and a lot of energy, but also exhaustion,” Fernandez said in an interview. “I called these last few years dog years.”

In his letter, Fernandez noted the accomplishments he was proud of: making fundraising history at Eckerd, launching new diversity and inclusion initiatives and navigating reopenings amid the pandemic, which at times raised concerns from faculty and parents.

Fernandez, who came to Eckerd from the Pennsylvania State University system, said it was not an easy decision to step away, but felt it was best to allow someone else to carry forward the momentum.

“There’s a time you say, ‘Is my work here done?’” he said. “And someone else can bring more stability after a necessary realignment.”

He said he believes Eckerd, a private liberal arts school with about 2,000 students, will be a “vanguard of what comes next in higher education.”

He said he sees Eckerd as poised to solve problems in St. Petersburg, something he believes former Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin will help the school to achieve. Tomalin became Eckerd’s vice president for strategy and chief operating officer last year.

“Eckerd will be a leader in reactivating the liberal arts for our times,” Fernandez said in the interview. “Science alone will not save our nation.”

While he said enrollment at Eckerd has remained stable as many colleges have seen drops, the campus has grappled with the challenge of people questioning the value of a college degree and what he called an “anti-intellectual” sentiment.

“It’s up to us as higher ed leaders to make the case with care and opening our campuses to our communities,” he said in the interview.

In his letter, Fernandez wrote, “the Japanese word tsundoku describes me: a person who buys a lot of books and leaves them in piles unread. I look forward to what awaits in them.”

He also said he plans to continue his work on the board of the American Council on Education, where he intends to focus on closing equity gaps in higher education. It’s an issue he said is personal to him — his mother completed third grade and his father high school.

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“I’m an optimist,” Fernandez said. “I believe the future will be better, but we need to work at it. I think education is as sacred as any secular profession can be.”

Annarelli, who has been at Eckerd since 1990, will serve as interim president as Eckerd’s board conducts a national search. He was part of creating a strategic plan for the school.

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