In 1958, the founders of the college said, "What is envisioned here is not just another college that lives from day to day on a routine, unimaginative basis. A new college requires a high degree of vision and creativity and should capture the imagination not only of Florida but of the American public." So the story began.
The exciting story of Eckerd College has unfolded since its incorporation in 1959 and its groundbreaking ceremony in the palmetto scrub on the southern tip of Pinellas County in 1960. It is the story of a visionary church, a courageous board of trustees, a highly committed faculty and staff, able students, and thousands of friends who turned an idea into a reality.
At the end of World War II, existing colleges and universities expanded and new ones were founded to accommodate returning GIs eager to earn a college education. Florida needed a college, innovative in character and superior in academic quality. Members of the United Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church (US) first separately, and then jointly, acted on this need. The two synods created a committee that drafted an extended statement of the nature of the college to be founded, selected St. Petersburg as its location, and conducted a campaign to provide financial support.
In 1958 the Florida Legislature granted the charter and the Presbyterian synods appointed a board of trustees. The chartered name was Florida Presbyterian College, accepted as a temporary designation until the college could be named to recognize a significant donor. William Kadel was elected President, John Bevan was appointed dean to develop the academic program, and Professor Tom West was sent all over Florida to recruit the first class.
In 1960 the college began its first instructional program with 155 freshman students and 22 faculty. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on 267 waterfront acres on the Gulf of Mexico, which was land acquired from the City of St. Petersburg for a college. For the College's first three years courses were held in the Merchant Marine buildings on Bayboro Harbor in downtown St. Petersburg. The college moved to its waterfront location when the initial phase of construction was completed in 1963.
In its first ten years, the college grew to 1,108 students and 80 faculty. It was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The college received national recognition for many features of its program, especially its pioneering 4-1-4 (Winter Term) calendar and its core general education program. Concluding his term in 1968, President Kadel was succeeded by Billy O. Wireman as the college's second president.
When he was appointed president in 1968 at the age of 35, Billy Wireman was the youngest college president in the United States. He had begun his service at the college in 1960 as a physical education instructor and served as dean of men and vice president for development on his way to the presidency. Later to be known as an innovative college-builder, President Wireman's passion for lifelong learning laid the cornerstone for a structure that would make the college known for intergenerational learning.
In 1971, with the largest gift given to the college in its brief history, Jack M. Eckerd provided the means for the college to survive. Mr. Eckerd first became affiliated with the college as a member of the Board of Trustees, Class of 1966. In June of 1971, the two Presbyterian synods transferred full control of the college to a self-perpetuating board of trustees and affirmed a covenant relationship between the college and the Church. In 1972, in gratitude to and recognition of his support, trustees changed the name of the college to Eckerd College.
Known for his philanthropy, abiding faith, and public service, Mr. Eckerd was the College's principal benefactor until his death in 2004. He served as Interim President in 1977 and Chairman of the Board from 1977 to 1981. Since 1966, gifts to the college from the family endowed scholarships, a youth ministry program, and other significant campus projects. A gift in 2001 provided the needed match for the construction of the college's new library. A true gentleman, Mr. Eckerd led his life with great dignity, guided by spiritual values manifested in his daily life. Eckerd College stands as testimony to his faith that education should be delivered in service to the public good.
In 1973, the college reorganized its academic program and adopted a "collegium" structure (akin to a divisional structure) which groups faculty in interdisciplinary groups according to methods of teaching and investigation. Despite an excellent faculty and academic program, over time enrollment dropped from a high of 1108 to 853, and the number of faculty fell from 80 to 63. In 1977 the board of trustees accepted President Wireman's resignation. [In 1978, Billy Wireman began what became a distinguished 25-year term as president of Queens College in Charlotte, North Carolina.] During Mr. Eckerd's service as interim president in 1977, the Board of Trustees selected Peter Hayden Armacost as the college's third president.
Beginning service in October of 1977, President Armacost led the college through a series of strategic initiatives to reverse the downward financial and enrollment trend. The faculty revised the curriculum to include a stronger general education program with a core curriculum and added new majors in such fields as computer science, marine science, environmental studies, international business, and international relations and global affairs. The college also created a series of special programs including a degree completion program for adults called the Program for Experienced Learners (PEL), an intergenerational learning program through the Academy of Senior Professionals at Eckerd College (ASPEC), and executive education programs through the Leadership Development Institute (LDI). The College also became the host site for Elderhostel programs and ELS Language Centers.
During President Armacost's 23 years of service, grants from the Ford Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, and several other private foundations, plus the announcement from a research study indicating that Eckerd College was ranked 24th among over 3,000 colleges in the nation in the percentage of graduates who attained PhDs, attested to the college's established academic strengths. In US News & World Report in 1987 Eckerd College was named one of the five most innovative colleges in America. By 2000, college enrollment had grown to 1485 students in the residential program, 1200 students in the Program for Experienced Learners, and 92 full-time faculty members.
In 2000 trustees learned that a significant portion of the college's endowment funds had been spent without their knowledge to support two business ventures: an assisted living facility and a residential development on college property. In the summer of 2000, President Armacost retired; and Eugene Hotchkiss, President Emeritus of Lake Forest College (IL), was selected to serve one year as interim president. College trustees also pledged to replace the funds that had been spent, and those pledges have all been fulfilled. This commitment by the college's trustees is one of the most honorable acts known today in American higher education.
Dr. Donald R. Eastman III joined the community as Eckerd College's fourth president on July 1, 2001. Trustees saw in President Eastman the experience and skills they believed would be necessary to move the college forward. Before his appointment, Dr. Eastman served ten years at the University of Georgia, first as Vice President for Development and University Relations and then as Vice President for Strategic Planning and Public Affairs. From 1989 to 1991, Dr. Eastman served at Cornell University as Executive Director of University Communications and as Acting Vice President for University Relations. At the University of Tennessee, from 1975 to 1989, Dr. Eastman served as the Executive Assistant to the Chancellor, Executive Director of University Communications, and Director of International Affairs. From 1972 to 1975, Dr. Eastman served as the Executive Director of the Florida Endowment for the Humanities, the Florida Division of the National Endowment for the Humanities' State Program.
Bringing a fresh perspective to the college, President Eastman affirmed the high quality of the academic program and the need to establish good management practices. By June 2003, the college had achieved a number of important management goals. The budget was balanced and a reserve fund established. The college's bylaws were re-written and the size of the board was reduced from 53 to 30. A new resource allocation model and investment strategy was established. A campus master plan was adopted. The college's real estate development project was sold. In April and May 2004, faculty and trustees unanimously adopted a ten-year strategic plan for the development of the college's academic programs.
External accolades have continued to flow to the college's academic programs. In December 2002, the Policy Center on the First Year of College selected Eckerd College as one the nation's top 13 Institutions of Excellence in the First College Year. In a study reported in a 2003 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Eckerd College was the top-ranked college in America in the percentage of students who study abroad. In February 2004, the college installed its Phi Beta Kappa chapter, placing it among the youngest of the nation's 270 college and universities granted Phi Beta Kappa chapters. For three consecutive years, the college's leadership development program, which is an affiliate of the Center for Creative Leadership in North Carolina, was ranked number one by BusinessWeek. To read more about recent developments at the college, please continue touring the college's Web site.