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Eckerd College
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President Donald R. Eastman III

President's Remarks

Remarks to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Photo/caption courtesy TigerBay.org

You may not know that, while there are 1,200 museums in the United States, there are only 21 3-star museums. And you may not know there is one, and only one, 3-star museum in the State of Florida or even in the southeastern United States. In all this beautiful, bewitching state, with the fourth largest population in the nation, there is only one 3-star museum. More people come to see it than any other museum in Florida, and they come from all over the world. If you do not know the museum...stay tuned.

You may not know that there is one, and only one, private national liberal arts college in Florida. (There are 225 of them nationally.)

Or that it leads the nation in the percentage of college students who study abroad: more than Harvard, more than Yale, more than Williams, and more than anyone else.

Or that it is among the youngest institutions ever to be awarded a Phi Beta Kappa Chapter - the Good Housekeeping seal of academic approval.

You may not know that it ranks in the top 20 colleges and universities in the nation in the percentage of its alumni who go on to graduate school and complete Ph.D.s.

Or that it has the most diverse residential student body in Florida and the South, with students from 49 states and 67 countries among its 1,600 full-time students.

You may not know that 97% of its faculty have Ph.D.s or the equivalent; that its student-to-faculty ratio is 14 to 1; and its average class size is 18 students while the average class size of public universities in Florida is typically many times larger.

You may not know that this same small college is nationally recognized for its innovative educational programs - including the creation of the 4-1-4 academic calendar, which uses January as a winter term to study a single course somewhere in the world.

That innovative spirit also gave birth to a three-week Autumn Term when only freshmen are on campus, and that program has been frequently recognized as one of the best introductions to college life in the country. Last year The Policy Center on the First Year of College selected the College as one of the nation's top thirteen "Institutions of Excellence in the First College Year."

You may not know that its learning-in-retirement program, the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College, is renowned as a national model for innovation and excellence as is its adult-education program, the Program for Experienced Learners (known as PEL), which enrolls 1,100 students from the Tampa Bay and Sarasota area.

You may not know that its Leadership Development Institute is, with its three partner campuses across the country, the leading program for executive education in the country (Harvard is second; Wharton third).

You may not know that the first and finest undergraduate marine science program in the country was established on its campus, and it continues to be the most popular major program. The Florida Institute of Oceanography recently elected the College to membership, making it the only exclusively undergraduate member.

The Galbraith Marine Sciences Laboratory and classroom building sits, as the whole campus does, on the water on Boca Ciega Bay, with salt-water piping through each room for easy research access.

You may not know that the College's results in the National Survey of Student Engagement, the foremost annual qualitative analysis of the academic experience of students in American colleges and universities, place the College among the top 25 in the nation.

You may not know, unless you have had a problem in your boat out in Tampa Bay or in the Gulf of Mexico, that the College's student-run search and rescue program makes more rescues at sea every year than anyone in Florida except the Coast Guard!

And you may not know that all of this has been achieved in four short decades, a remarkably brief period of time in the life of educational institutions.

If you do not know all this, you do not know Eckerd College, which joins the Salvador Dali Museum and the St. Petersburg Times as the three most distinctive nationally recognized institutions in Tampa Bay and among the top dozen in Florida.

What you probably do know is that the College has had a full plate of financial challenges. You undoubtedly read in the local papers four years ago of the use of College endowment funds to support two business ventures: an assisted living facility and a residential development on College property. I hope you also read that College trustees then pledged to replace the funds and those pledges have all been fulfilled. (I want to remark here, and I take no credit for any of this because I was not here then, that this commitment by the College's trustees is one of the most honorable acts I know of in American higher education. It would have been all too easy for those folks to say, "I didn't know!" "Too bad!" Instead they said, "We are responsible. Let's fix it." And they did.)

Just for the record: Eckerd College's total for endowment, cash and other investments prior to the troubles of 2000 was $34m; the current total is $25m, the difference being the diminished market value of the investment portfolio and the normal approved expenditures for scholarships over the past four years.

There is no doubt that Eckerd College, like any small college in its early years, like many colleges even when they have been around for one or two hundred years, has had other financial challenges. Let us put this in perspective: When Yale was forty years old, there were still cows in the main campus quadrangle. Cornell had chickens and pigs in the dormitory courtyards. The first president of Franklin and Marshall College, like a lot of others, went door to door with a lantern at night to solicit funds to pay the faculty. Well, I have my own lantern. Liberal arts colleges are fragile enterprises, particularly in their early years, before they have enough old alumni to give them large endowment gifts.

I asked my friends at the St. Petersburg Times to quit referring to "financially troubled Eckerd College" as if being poor was a sin. There is nothing wrong with being poor as long as you work hard, particularly in the service of a great enterprise. Building a great liberal arts college to help educate men and women of character and imagination and commitment to make the world a better place is a great enterprise.

Florida is lucky to have great research universities like the University of Florida and University of South Florida and wonderful community colleges like St. Petersburg College has been, but the residential liberal arts college brings a whole new dimension to higher education. We think that what happens outside the classroom at college is just as important and just as educational as what happens inside the classroom - and that the two must be integrated and of the same high quality if the student is to have the optimal college experience. We expect most of our students to live on campus, and we expect the experience in a learning community to be one that changes their lives and prepares them to be committed, contributing citizens of the world.

When I arrived in St. Petersburg not quite three years ago, the College had a structural budget deficit of $3.2m and a seven-year plan to get out of that debt. I told the trustees and faculty that by then everyone would be so miserable dealing with that recurring debt that we would lose even our most loyal supporters. What we did was make a deal: I told the trustees that if they would cover half the debt in Year One through a second annual fund gift, we would cut the budget to come up with the other half in Year One and balance the budget without special gifts in Year Two. That is just what we did through good, careful management; and we have been in the black ever since.

We downsized our Board of Trustees from 53 to 29 trustees plus the president; revised our bylaws and Board committee structure; revamped outdated personnel and administrative policies and procedures; I still sign off on every single hiring decision we make; hired a national auditing firm and we passed our last two audits with flying colors; computerized our financial systems; completely revamped our investment portfolio using a superior firm out of New Hampshire for advice; developed a campus master plan so we can be more efficient about how we use our physical plant dollars as well as to develop our vision for the future of the College (for this work we used the best firm in the country, Ayers/Saint/Gross out of Baltimore); and we are currently re-bidding our facilities and food service vendor contracts in the interest of both efficiency and quality.

In other words the turnaround at Eckerd College has been accomplished not by one grand stroke, but by doing a thousand little things, doing the right things the right way. In my view, success is almost always the result of a good team working together on thousands of little things - getting details right day after day, student by student.

That is the reason we are operating in the black; have built a reserve fund of 2% of our annual budget; have improved our retention rate for freshmen from 75% to 84% in two years; have increased our on-campus residency percentage from 68% to 76% - which is currently our capacity; and have nearly doubled the percentage of our alumni who give to the annual fund, from 15% to 29% in two short years.

Teamwork and paying attention to details. We are not just fixing past problems; we are moving forward.

We have revamped our recruitment publications and our website based on cutting-edge market research. We have improved the appearance of the campus and have a new signage system. Our applications are up by 20% this year, and our improved retention rate will let us grow without adding large numbers of additional freshmen - which is the best way to grow.

We expect to enroll 1800 residential students by the year 2010 and to house 80% of them on campus - which means we will add some 260 new beds by then. We expect to complete a new strategic plan next month and to build new science and arts facilities, a student wellness and recreation facility, and a new Chapel and Center for Spiritual Life in the coming decade.

Late next fall, we will open a superb new library and information technology center. It will have seating capacity for 25% of our residential students at any one time, and we will provide a wireless computing environment that will extend to the entire campus within a year.

We are also making the campus, which has one of the best locations in the world, one of the most beautiful in the world - one that highlights the water, the environment, native plants and grasses, shaded walking paths and bicycle trails, and the pedestrian rather than the automobile.

We want Eckerd College to reflect the very best of this special place and to celebrate its beauty; wildlife; flora and fauna; its celebration of nature; and its diversity of people as well, from all over America and the world. St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay occupy a special place in the American dream, and Eckerd College has the potential to articulate and embody that ideal in a singular and lasting way. That is just what we are trying our best to do.

Thank you.