Dr. Norm Stephens reflects on his career, his future and his accomplishments

South Florida State College President Dr. Norman Stephens is stepping down and calling it a career. Highlands Today asked him several questions about his tenure as president, what he's witnessed while serving in his position, his plans for the future and his biggest achievements. Here are his answers. Q: When you walked into your office on the first day of work at South Florida Community College, what did you envision during your tenure? A: It was the day after Labor Day in 2002, and I was excited to return to Florida after spending more than a dozen years as president of two community colleges, one in Illinois and the other in Michigan. I had graduated from Fort Lauderdale High School and the University of Florida and previously worked at two colleges in our state. Florida is our home as it is for our four kids and many other family members. It was wonderful to be back home with so many friends. No matter what I envisioned on that day 11 years ago, I could not have imagined all that has transpired. SFCC, which is now SFSC, has a history of continuity of leadership, and I anticipated finishing my career at this college. My predecessors, Dr. Catherine Cornelius and Dr. William Stallard, each brought excellence and stability, and I was proud and eager to present my passport for the next leg of the journey. I told the trustees that I hoped to remain here for at least 10 years. I accepted this professional opportunity because the college was successful and enjoyed significant community support. I envisioned a continuation of that legacy as we expanded and improved our programs and services.
Q: Any goals set then that took years to materialize? A: The role of any effective college president is to create an environment and a culture where students and employees are empowered and highly motivated to learn and work. This goal requires getting to know the people at the college and creating an effective team. Developing positive relationships with people and organizations including the many college stakeholders throughout the college district and around the state required considerable effort as well. Many projects and initiatives were already underway or just getting started, and I brought a few ideas of my own, some of which have been accomplished while others remain works in progress. Opening the new DeSoto and Hardee Campuses, The Museum of Florida Art and Culture, and the Dental Education Center were among the obvious tasks facing us in that first year. Additionally, I envisioned significant improvements in the use of technology to support our educational efforts, to increase our productivity, and to provide us with data for assessing our institutional effectiveness. The learning curve presented its challenges. Getting to know the trustees and establishing our common vision for the institution as well as understanding and appreciating our distinct roles and responsibilities was a critical goal and a process that never really ends. Q: What was your biggest challenge over the years that most folks would not even know about? A: Our college and our district seem to suffer exaggerated effects growing out of such things as hurricanes, a poor economy, and complicated legislation. When the economy is bad everywhere, it is really bad here. More people come back to school, and this occurs when the state cannot afford to adequately fund the increasing enrollment. It is a vicious cycle. We are proud of the way we managed these challenges during difficult times, but it has not been easy. We endeavored to deal with these pressures in a manner that was hardly noticeable to our students. Q: Are there issues unique to SFSC that other colleges in the state face or are the issues universal throughout the system? A: Each of the 28 colleges in the Florida College System is unique. We serve dissimilar communities and respond to their needs in different ways. There are universals, of course. SFSC is one of the most comprehensive colleges in the system, and it is relatively small compared to most of the others. The entire district is decidedly rural and geographically quite large. This combination can be expensive. Imagine any small organization trying to be all things to all of its many distinct clients and customers. We do not enjoy the benefits of an economy of scale. Q: Looking forward, what do you see as SFSC's future? A: The college should continue on its current mission of responding to the ever-changing needs of the people and communities in DeSoto, Hardee, and Highlands counties. The National Science Foundation funded Bioenergy Education initiative promises new career options in agriculture and related technology. Many of our existing programs will continue to grow, some may not because of the changing demands of the workforce. Technology will continue to change. The future of this college is bright. Q: A thriving four-year college offering many degrees or a more limited college? A: There will certainly be additional degree programs. We are working on a bachelor of science in Nursing and a bachelor of science in Elementary Education. We plan to offer these majors beginning in the fall of 2014. Along with our current bachelor of applied science in Supervision and Management, these three baccalaureate degrees will probably be enough for the near future. The college will continue to offer additional bachelors and even certain graduate degrees in partnership with several public and private universities. In the long run, I expect that SFSC will provide a broad range of baccalaureate degree programs that prepare students for fulfilling careers in our region of the state. Q: Do you feel any fear or trepidation retiring or is it all just positive feelings? A: There is no fear, whatsoever. I look forward to seeing what is around the bend. I've been involved in higher education and community colleges for 45 years, so there is a natural wonder about what the future holds for me. It is particularly heartwarming to be able to end my career in such a wonderful place after a remarkably gratifying professional experience. Q: What do you count as your biggest accomplishment during your tenure at SFSC, or any other college you've worked at for that matter? A: Time will tell, but I hope it is that many thousands of students have graduated and improved their life circumstances as a result of the education they received at this college and at the other colleges where I've had the privilege of working. I'm proud of the culture of empowered competence we have established at this college. We have a wonderful group of highly motivated professional educators who know their subjects, actively involve their students in the learning process, and truly care that they learn relevant lessons. They embrace positive expectations, and they believe in their students' abilities to succeed. Our mission statement speaks to developing human potential, and that is what we are about. Life is about learning, every single day we can learn something new and something useful. There is no limit to our ability to learn. As an institution, we embrace this principle of lifelong learning. The efforts to reaffirm our accreditation were significant, both at the institutional and program level. When our 10-year reaffirmation of accreditation occurred without any recommendations, that was magical. Then, just a year later, our application for level change to become a baccalaureate degree granting institution was also received with no recommendations. This almost never happens, but we did it. I feel great pride in the exemplary team effort that made this happen. Additionally, over the past decade, we have worked to acquire national program accreditation for nearly all of our career programs. This is great news for our students. And routinely, nearly 100 percent of our students achieve industry certification. We are proud of this record. Q: When you look back on your career, is there anything you would change or a different path you wish you had pursued? A: There were certainly some difficult times, but they were learning opportunities. Without those experiences, I would not be here today. We all should appreciate the journey we've taken. I try not to expend too much emotional energy over those things about which I have no control. The past is gone forever. Its only value is what we can learn from it. Q: What will you do with yourself in retirement? Politics? Is there a chance you'd run for some office? Or is this all about R&R? A: My wonderful wife Laurie and I plan to do some traveling over the next several months. We have three fun trips planned during the remainder of the year. When we return to our home in Sebring, I'm looking forward to having time for my many interests. I love music and enjoy playing jazz on my alto sax. I am thinking about taking piano lessons, and I might even learn to compose. I also enjoy all kinds of sports and look forward to following my teams, particularly the Panthers and the Gators. Playing tennis and golf are high on my list. A few years ago, I bought a wonderful set of clubs, but I haven't had the time to play. Laurie and I also enjoy hiking and just walking or riding our bicycles in our neighborhood. Finally, I began my career as a science professor teaching chemistry and several other sciences. Much of my pleasure reading relates to science and mathematics. I'm looking forward to more time for that. Professionally, I want to do some writing and a little consulting. There are opportunities to serve as an interim president, and that would interest me, if it were short-term and the right circumstance. There is absolutely no chance, none, zero, nil, nada, that I would ever consider dipping even my little toe of my left foot into the proverbial pool of politics. I find politics to be an irrational enterprise performed by otherwise normal people with often tragic consequences. I admire those who choose this path. God knows we need good people to represent us at all levels of government, but that is not for me. Q: What would you like to say to the people of Highlands County and the other counties served by SFSC? A: It has been a most fulfilling experience to have served as the third president of South Florida State College for the past11 years. The students who choose to attend this college are among the best college students I have had the pleasure of knowing in my career in five colleges in three states. The data supports this impression. This speaks volumes for the people who live and work here. Thank you for encouragement and your support of our college. Q: If there's anything else you want to add, please feel free. A: It is the team of professionals, the people are the essence of this college. It has been the highlight of my career to travel this journey with them. I will miss them - the incredibly competent faculty, the trustees, the leadership team and everyone else who makes this a great place to work and learn. In my tenure at this college, I've had the pleasure and the privilege of working with some amazing board members. Of course, I will always appreciate the original eight who entrusted me with this wonderful professional opportunity. Only one of that original group remains on the current board, Dr. Louis Kirschner of Arcadia and DeSoto County, who will have the unique distinction of having served as a board member during the tenure of three of the four SFSC presidents. The eight who will welcome Dr. Thomas C. Leitzel to the college next month continue the tradition of excellence established by their predecessors. I thank them for their tremendous support and encouragement.