St. Petersburg College selects its first black and first female president in school history

Tonjua Williams, Vice President of Student Services at St. Petersburg College, has been chosen unanimously as the school's next president. [St. Petersburg College]
Tonjua Williams, Vice President of Student Services at St. Petersburg College, has been chosen unanimously as the school's next president. [St. Petersburg College]
Published June 1, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — A 30-year employee of St. Petersburg College rode an overwhelming tide of public support on Wednesday to be named the school's first female and first black president.

A crowd that included faculty and staff broke into applause as the college's five-member board of trustees unanimously chose Tonjua Williams, 53, as their new leader.

"It is truly an honor," Williams said later in an email. "What this proves is that there is no ceiling, not just for me, but for everyone who has a dream. This is what SPC is all about, helping people reach their dreams."

Williams won over the board with her deep local ties, data-driven plans and sheer love of SPC.

"I was more excited to be part of this institution after hearing her speak about it than perhaps I have been in the last few years," said trustee Nathan Stonecipher. "She is passionate about St. Petersburg College. That bleeds out of her."

Williams will take the reins amid faculty discontent and financial unease, facing down a projected $6 million to $10 million shortfall with little support from a state Legislature that favored state universities this year. She also takes her place among the region's institutional heavyweights, overseeing a school with some 40,000 students and nearly a dozen campuses and centers.

Her supporters, including outgoing president William D. Law Jr., said she's more than prepared.

"She's a really big-time player," Law said. "I don't know who would be more capable."

Williams was born in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood and raised by a single mother who wanted her children's lives to be different from her own, she said in a 2006 interview with the Tampa Bay Times. Going to college was an expectation, not a mere possibility. So Williams and her two siblings, without a TV or radio to distract them, spent their time after school doing homework and talking, growing close.

After graduating from Boca Ciega High, Williams spent her undergraduate years at Clearwater Christian College and got her master's at the University of South Florida. She later earned a doctorate in higher education administration at Barry University.

In 1986, she was working at George's Pools, Inc., when the owner suggested she apply to work at SPC, then known as St. Petersburg Junior College. Williams was hired as a senior accounting clerk, then rose through the ranks of academic and student affairs. Now, as senior vice president of student services, she leads provosts at seven campuses and oversees student-centric initiatives such as mentoring, tutoring and laptop-lending programs.

On Wednesday, board members took turns discussing their views of the candidates for president — a $300,000 job.

Williams, they said, delivered the best interview by far. She was quick-witted and well-prepared, they said. Despite concerns that an internal candidate would have stale ideas, they liked her detailed plans for improving recruitment and retention.

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Above all, they applauded her focus on students. She proposed that SPC change its mindset to become a "student-ready college," able to serve those with all kinds of capabilities, rather than waiting for "college-ready students."

In all things, she said, SPC should be championed as a proud choice: "the plan, not the fallback."

After other trustees spoke, Deveron Gibbons held the floor. With a voice scratchy from lack of sleep, he delivered an impassioned pitch for Williams, who he has known for much of his life.

In this economic climate, he said, the college doesn't have time to hire someone with a learning curve. So, he said, he called President Law on Wednesday morning and asked: "Are you convinced that Dr. Williams is prepared?"

Absolutely, Law told Gibbons. He said he had never worked with anyone so prepared.

Gibbons also read a comment from a faculty member. It was written in an open survey the college distributed after Williams' campus interviews. The author said Williams was initially not a favorite, but that her passion and preparedness would take SPC in the right direction.

"What more do you want for a president than someone who can change the mind of their critics?" Gibbons asked, turning to board chair Bill Foster. "So Mr. Chair, I have to tell you, I came with two names today, but I'm only submitting one: Dr. Tonjua Williams."

When trustees named their favorite candidates, only Williams was on everyone's list.

Gibbons made a motion to elect her. Trustee Bridgette Bello seconded. All members gave their "aye."

Williams emerged early in the search process as a lightning rod for praise and criticism alike. Local leaders vouched for her integrity and passion, but faculty members consistently gave her low marks in internal polls.

Stonecipher acknowledged the rift, saying he hoped Williams would listen to faculty concerns.

In a poll this week, just 16 percent of nearly 170 faculty members said Williams would be their first or second pick. Critics called her divisive, petulant and limited in scope, since she has minimal teaching experience and has spent her education career at one institution. They worried she wouldn't fix what they described as a top-heavy administrative culture and low faculty morale.

On Wednesday, Williams said she would "respectfully seek their guidance and leadership" to ensure faculty are empowered to take the lead on teaching and learning.

Several faculty members noted concerns that Williams is too friendly with Gibbons.

"Even though a certain BOT member has been campaigning for her and bullying people, she should not get the job," someone commented in the faculty poll.

Gibbons dismissed those claims Wednesday, saying his judgment was not clouded.

"The impression that I would move someone forward because of a personal relationship is crazy to me," he said.

Williams did have fans among the faculty, who praised her professionalism and ability to "keep it real." They also liked her idea to boost the college's branding.

"We're willing to work with Dr. Williams to move forward and hope that she does understand that the faculty have been a little disgruntled lately," Darlene Westberg, vice chairman of the faculty senate, said after the vote.

While faculty may have been disappointed, many local leaders were thrilled.

On Wednesday, state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, watched the board's discussion via Livestream, hoping "that the glass ceiling would get shattered to smithereens."

The job, he said, is a dream his own father did not get to live out. He said his father once lost his bid for the college presidency, told that there was no room for a black president. Instead, Carl Kuttler won and became SPC's longest-serving president, reigning from 1978 to 2009.

"She met every qualification," Rouson said of Williams. "Neither her gender nor her race is a qualification, but certainly is a reflection of the student body and how far we've come in St. Petersburg."

Rouson and other leaders said Williams' roots in St. Petersburg have earned her the trust of the community. She and her husband of 27 years, Derrick, live in St. Petersburg. She is devoted to her church, Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. She said she owes her success to her mother, who "had a plan and stuck to it."

The other candidates were:

• Frank A. Biafora Jr., 52, dean and professor of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Biafora brought inside experience after shadowing Law during a fellowship. He had strategic ideas for the budget, branding and fundraising, but trustees were wary of his lack of community college experience.

• Edward Bonahue, 51, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Santa Fe College in Gainesville. As the board's second-favorite candidate, trustees praised his experience, charisma and plan to build a better SPC identity. He balanced the needs of students and faculty. But they questioned his budget expertise.

• James Henningsen, 51, president of the College of Central Florida in Ocala. Trustees said he was strong on paper, especially when it came to budgets and Tallahassee. But his interview left them with a blurry vision of SPC's future.

• Stan Vittetoe, 62, Clearwater provost at St. Petersburg College. Trustees liked his poise and emphasis on workforce development, but sought more balance and specificity.

SPC, the state's first two-year college, has grown into a school with more than 100 career-focused programs, including bachelor's degree tracks far cheaper than those of state universities. Many students are older than the average college freshmen and take classes part-time.

Williams said her first order of business will be to assemble a transition team representative of all roles at SPC to prioritize top issues and move forward together.

Contact Claire McNeill at or (727) 893-8321.