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Op Ed Articles
Phi Beta Kappa Award Richly Deserved
Published in the St. Petersburg Times
August 16, 2003, p. 16A.
As Eckerd College and St. Petersburg celebrate a signal event in the life of this 45-year-old institution -- the awarding of a Phi Beta Kappa Chapter; one of only 270 such chapters in the nation and only the sixth in the State of Florida (the others are at the University of Florida, Florida State University, the University of Miami, Stetson University, and Florida International University) -- it is a propitious time to reflect on the role of Eckerd College in the community, state and nation.
What is the point of a national private liberal arts college in Tampa Bay and in a state blessed with a vast array of public institutions of higher education? Why does Tampa Bay need -- and what is the benefit from -- one more college, and an expensive one at that, amid the plentitude of public colleges and universities in this area?
Eckerd College is the only national liberal arts college in Florida (there are only 217 such colleges in the nation), a unique position in the nation's fourth largest state. A residential liberal arts college not only means that most students live on campus, but that the out-of-class part of college gets as much attention in terms of the qualitative experience as the in-class part. Residential self-governance, student-run political and judicial structures, volunteer service programs, religious and spiritual life opportunities, and social life are all an integral part of the Eckerd College undergraduate experience for all students. The College also has a continuing education program that annually serves some 1,200 adults in seven locations in the Tampa Bay area with undergraduate programs tailored to adult needs and which embody the same high educational quality that characterizes the residential program.
It is true that "there are no great cities without great research universities," as the advertisements for USF, with its campuses in Tampa and St. Petersburg and elsewhere, proclaim, and USF is no doubt on the way to achieving that important status. Eckerd College has no ambition to become a research university or to offer the graduate programs on which that status depends. USF St. Petersburg, which currently has only two-thirds the number of undergraduate students as Eckerd, expects to grow dramatically in the next four years, and Eckerd College does not. Nor does it wish to compete with the vocationally oriented two- and now four-year programs offered by St. Petersburg College, as it builds on its extraordinary success as a multi-campus community college for working adults and residents of Tampa Bay.
So where do we fit in this crowded field?
The Phi Beta Kappa Chapter, awarded just this month, provides a unique and insightful clue: Phi Beta Kappa Chapters are awarded only to those national institutions of higher education that provide the highest level of academic and intellectual quality in their educational programs for undergraduate students. That's what we do at Eckerd College.
Eckerd College's residential student body of 1,600 students, coming from 49 states and 67 countries, live and learn with over 100 faculty who have the highest degree in their fields, in classes that average no more than 14 students. All students have faculty mentors who provide academic and career guidance throughout their experience at the college and often long afterward. United States Magistrate Judge Susan Russ Walker, a Rhodes Scholar who graduated from Eckerd College 25 years ago and who attended Yale University Law School after her Rhodes Scholar years at Oxford, says the best teaching she ever had in her nine years of higher education was at Eckerd -- and that she is still in regular contact with many Eckerd faculty. Eckerd students and alumni know that they never cease being the highest priority for Eckerd College faculty.
Teaching at Eckerd College is rigorous and personal. Last semester, when a student was temporarily bedridden (but not contagious), a class in his major subject was moved to his dorm room so he would not miss the class! Eckerd rates in the top 25 in the nation in the percentage of graduates who go on to graduate school, and dozens of students have told me that the time their faculty mentors spent making sure they had the right kinds of summer research internships made the difference in their ability to get into the most prestigious graduate programs in the nation. The highly regarded National Survey of Student Engagement, the best quantitative indicator of undergraduate education available, ranks Eckerd's academic program in the highest percentile among the roughly 500 participating schools across the country.
Only 33 percent of Eckerd's residential students are from Florida and 10 percent are from abroad. The average student in this nationally and internationally diverse academic community comes from more than 500 miles away, consequently bringing not only new brains to the Tampa Bay area but new dollars and visits from family and friends who also have a salutary effect on the local economy.
Thus Phi Beta Kappa.
Eckerd is not Harvard: Most of our students are not academic stars when they come, though many are when they leave. And they are not wealthy: The average Eckerd College student's family income is less than the average of those who attend Florida's state universities. The College provides $13 million annually in financial aid, and our students bring another $2 million in scholarships and grants (that equals nearly $10,000 per student per year in student aid). Many students work during the school year to help pay for the cost of college. The fact that we are private means neither the city nor the county nor the state subsidizes our programs (our Florida students are, however, eligible for Bright Futures and FRAG grants).
Forty-five years ago, many citizens of St. Petersburg went door-to-door to raise money to establish Florida Presbyterian College, and there has been a deep reservoir of support and affection among the people of Pinellas County for the College ever since. In four short decades, that College, which became Eckerd College in the 1970s, has become one of Tampa Bay's most widely known institutions, recognized in higher education circles around the world for the quality of its undergraduate program. On behalf of the trustees, faculty, staff, and students of the College let me congratulate the citizens of St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay on becoming a Phi Beta Kappa community, and thank you for your continued affection and support of Eckerd College.