Educational equity. Academic excellence. Community engagement. These were just a few of the themes shared during a virtual panel discussion with local college and university leaders Thursday.
During the hourlong discussion hosted by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, panelists shared their visions for their schools, the pivots they’ve made in the wake of Covid-19, and their strategies for collaboration with the local business community to promote a culture of education.
Here’s are the highlights of what the panelists had to say:
- Michèle Alexandre, dean of the Stetson University College of Law: Alexandre, who began her tenure as dean in 2019, said the College has been working to forge a path in the business community as a training ground for leaders and has created a new business law concentration that matches the school’s goal of comprehensive advocacy. During Covid, the College pivoted in its admission and educational delivery methods. That hasn’t hindered recruitment and Stetson welcomed its largest incoming class in 10 years in 2020. Students have gradually returned to campus, with 75 percent of first-year students taking classes in person. Other students are participating in hybrid learning. Alexandre said Stetson is also examining how it can further social justice and is engaging in a partnership with The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg that will include outreach to high schools to identify talented students.
- Damián J. Fernández, president of Eckerd College: Fernández joined Eckerd in July 2020 and has since met with more than 2,000 students, alumni and faculty to develop a vision on how to reimagine higher education for the current era. The school’s strategic plan will be guided by four pillars: innovation in the liberal arts and sciences, which will foster interdisciplinary programs that combine sciences with humanities and the arts, building stronger connections with the surrounding community to create more engagement and social impact, implementing a culture of proactive inclusive excellence which will include a diversity action plan to help recruit more students and faculty of color and sustainability and resilience that will help ensure the survival of the waterfront campus.
- Steven Currall, president of the University of South Florida: Since his arrival at USF in 2019, Currall has played a pivotal role in overseeing the consolidation of the three USF campuses under a single accreditation. He spoke about the school’s continued focus on academic excellence and research opportunities while also stressing its commitment to access, inclusion and diversity. In terms of what’s happening on the St. Petersburg campus, he shared USF’s plan to create five distinctive academic clusters across multiple disciplines, with the goal of turning the waterfront campus into an international destination for student and faculty talent. The clusters include Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences, Technology and Sustainability, STEM Education, Visual and Performing Arts, Business and Health Sciences.
- Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College: Williams, who has served as president at SPC since 2017, has been with the school for more than 30 years. Because many SPC students work and are taking care of family, it tends to take longer for them to graduate. That doesn’t mean the school isn’t committed to academic excellence – it just means academic excellence might look a little different. Her goal is to see students graduate with the skills they need to land a career with a good salary and opportunities for advancement and that the programs being offered at SPC align with local workforce needs. Williams also said she hopes that SPC will be a conduit for civic engagement, where students will learn the importance of giving back to the community. Finally, she shared her vision for local educational institutions to join together to create a strong educational ecosystem that is easy for people to navigate.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, one of the key architects of the USF consolidation, said that building a culture of education and lifelong learning has to begin at the K-12 level and will require collaboration from both institutions of higher education and the business community in order to thrive.
“The campus should be the community with opportunities for everyone to participate,” he said.