Higher Education in Florida
Meet Eckerd College President Donald Eastman
A thing to know about Eckerd College President Donald Eastman III in this era of STEM, online classes and college-as-job training: He’s an unreformed, unabashed champion of liberal arts education. He also has a talent for laying into emperors without clothes wherever he sees them.
Writing about the University of Florida’s online university: “An extraordinary triumph of delusional thinking and a great testimonial to the obtuseness of our governor.”
On Barack Obama: “It is deeply disappointing when the president of the United States opines about college costs in simplistic and finger-wagging terms.”
On an academic boycott of Israeli institutions: “One hesitates to respond to anything as silly as an academic boycott.”
Another thing to know: He’s a skilled administrator. Eastman arrived at Eckerd from the University of Georgia in 2001. Founded by Presbyterians, built on the water in St. Petersburg and named for drugstore chain founder Jack Eckerd, the college fell into trouble in the late 1990s after two efforts to develop for-profit real estate ventures on campus land failed. Without the knowledge of its board, a major portion of the school’s endowment funds had been diverted into the money-losing efforts. Then-President Peter Armacost resigned, and board members used personal resources to make up the shortfall.
After Eastman took over, the school sold the bad assets by 2005. Cash on hand went from a negative $2.4 million to $39 million. Cash reserves went from zero to $19 million. An $83-million capital campaign took the endowment to $53.3 million and built a new life sciences building, renovated facilities and added scholarships for study abroad. “It’s a pretty dramatic change,” Eastman says.
Balance sheet aside, Eckerd rates high in several rankings. It also is considered a top school for study abroad, which gets to a core Eckerd value: Thinking globally. Some 85% of students live on the school’s grounds, which gets to another: Campus residential life. The other core values are environmental, personal and spiritual. Graduates have heard Eastman quote Isaiah, Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. in a single speech.
With the ship righted, Eckerd just has the usual significant challenges facing colleges and universities. At 1,800 students, its economies of scale are limited. The tuition, fees and room and board sticker price runs $47,506 per year. About 96% of students receive aid, with the average package about $26,000. Even so, two-thirds of students graduate with debt. Average debt is $26,000. The six-year graduation rate is 60%.
The college-age demographic is shrinking. Eckerd has its location going for it, especially since 79% of its students are from out-of-state, and its commitment to having professors teach classes. Where many institutions have gone astray is in adding graduate programs and research that “become the focus for faculty and the focus for institutions and the undergraduates get short shrift,” he says.
For those who don’t care for online classes, Eckerd is the place. Eastman sees online ed playing a role for adult learners who can’t move to a campus, but for traditional college-age students it’s “nonsense” driven by a desire to save money. In all his talks with prospective students and parents, no one says, “Boy, I wish you had more online classes.” He’s critical of the Gates Foundation for advocating online learning as the affordable answer in education.
Eastman, 68, hopes retirement is a way off. Eckerd just instituted a revised core curriculum. It’s starting a fundraising campaign to improve its already strong support aid for student study abroad, to endow more faculty and to build a new arts building. Eastman says,
“We’ve done so much with our science facilities parents ask, ‘Do you care as much about the arts as you do the sciences?’ That hurts.”
Eckerd College President Donald Eastman III
Born: Native of Virginia
Bachelor’s: University of Tennessee, 1968
Ph.D: University of Florida, 1971
Experience: Florida Endowment for the Humanities, executive director, 1972-75
University of Tennessee, 1975-89
Vice president, University of Georgia, 1991-2001
President, Eckerd College, 2001