Q&A with President Wendy Libby


Dr. Libby explains the newest strategic map draft and Stetson’s future

Photo by: Sammy Ollila

Photo by: Sammy Ollila

What types of things should we expect in the newest strategic map draft?

I can only speculate on where we’re going, but the speculation most certainly would be that we’re going to continue on our plan to find the best students for Stetson. So let’s just talk about the central challenge. ‘Establish Stetson,’ was really a way to put a line in the sand and say, ‘This is who we are.’ We’re going to be a university of choice. That means we want people to chose us for who we are rather than kind of stumble into it, or they like it because we’re near the beach, or they like it because we’re going to pay them an appropriate salary to work here. We would prefer that when they’re thinking about where to go to school, where to work, this is a place whose name they know and they have respect for the kinds of things that we do.

Which one of these goals will be the most difficult to address?

You know, I can’t answer that because they’re totally interwoven with one another. In any given year, a handful of them are bigger challenges than others just because the world changes. So we’ve just announced this week a new Vice President for Development. Jeff [Ulmer] has a big job ahead of him in terms of garnering the resources that we need to be successful in developing an alumni engagement program that really speaks not just to our older alums, but to young alums who have different interests and different needs. So today that’s a really big important challenge and goal. A year from now, maybe it won’t be at the top of my list and something else might be there. But what has not yet been done is deciding within this map which are the items that take prominence and take preference over the others to get started.

What do you think is Stetson’s biggest asset at the moment?

I would say the quality of our faculty and our teaching. We’ve been really fortunate to have faculty who care deeply about challenging and pushing our students to be their very best, and along with that, they also are forward-thinking in their disciplines. So as we’ve been bringing in top-quality new faculty this year, it’s important we bring in people who want to teach at Stetson as opposed to a place like the University of Florida and who understand that the ethos here is about pushing our students and teaching in a way that has a real impact on their learning. You can’t run a great university without great faculty.

Tuition price is always a point of contention for private university students, and Stetson’s Board of Trustees recently approved a tuition increase. However, I don’t see anything specific addressing tuition prices.

Actually you do, you just don’t know it. If you look on the map, “Implement a best practice alumni engagement and development capability,” it doesn’t say it, but when this block gets turned into specific strategies, it will say, ‘Raise money for student scholarships.’ So you’re not going to see us lowering our tuition. What you’re going to see is looking for ways to raise money for scholarships. As we raise more money for scholarships, we can lower the burden that places on our budget. Ever since I’ve been here, not only have our faculty and staff all received raises every year, but they’ve gotten significant equity adjustments to bring their salaries more closer into market. So that costs tuition money, and it costs tuition money to pay them the benefits that go along with that. It costs tuition money to make sure that we’re hiring the best faculty. I would say we’re being really efficient in how we use our resources and we only put tuition up the amount we need to.

This is a time when a lot of schools similar to Stetson might be struggling with retention and rising tuition prices, but here we are expanding and thriving. What makes Stetson different?

Oh, our results are totally opposite of what’s going on most everywhere else. What makes us different is four years ago we were struggling with a very slow decline over the last 10 to 20 years in our enrollment, shrinking geographic diversity, lessening compensation for the people who have given their lives to the university, and something had to dramatically change. And that is what I and the whole team here have been doing for the last few years. I think that we have gone against the trend in private higher education in this country by being very clear who we are, how we articulate it and how we go about making it happen. We stuck to our values and traditions at the same time as we’ve been very audacious about our strengths and what we do well. We have cast off the humility in being a “Best kept secret.” I have no interest in being the best kept secret. I only have interest in being known on the regional and national stage for this university. Our Board of Trustees has been willing to make some bold moves, and thankfully I can’t really come up with any one that hasn’t panned out.

You’ve taken quite a few calculated risks since becoming president. Which one of these changes was most difficult to actually see through for you?

You know, the hardest thing to do is to keep the soul of an institution while it’s changing, and you can’t measure that, you can only feel it. And that’s the hardest part, to be more in the public eye while still caring about the guts of who we are and where we’ve been. So sometimes people disagree with where you’re headed. I only have one job here and that’s to make this the best Stetson University I can make it. Some days people don’t agree with me or my team, or where we’re headed and I have to hear it, and I have to say, ‘Oh, did I miss something? Maybe there’s a point there I didn’t hear and we need to rethink it.’ But if in my brain and in my heart I, and my senior group, really think that that’s where we need to go, then that’s where we’re going to go. I mean, in many ways the biggest change was the audacity of thinking we could go from 2,100 undergraduates to 3,000. That took a lot of courage on the leadership’s part, but also on the Board’s part, on the faculty part, everybody’s part that we could grow the institution by 50 percent and not lose our soul. And that’s actually the thing that most people don’t recognize as the largest challenge or the largest change. They think it’s football, but it’s not. It’s increasing and improving quality while experiencing very, very rapid growth.

Obviously, being president requires you to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work. What’s something that you’ve done that you’re really proud of that people probably don’t know about?

You know, I always say, ‘I’d like to be the president who really strengthened the academic excellence of the institution, but instead they’re going to remember me as the football president.’ What most people don’t see is the changes that the Board of Trustees has made in learning more about our industry so that they can make more informed decisions. There’s a national meeting every year on boardsmanship. There’s research around Boards of Trustees, how to build a good relationship with a senior team, what Boards ought to be thinking about, how to consider such important issues as sexual harassment on campus or intercollegiate athletics or compensation of faculty. And our Board had not done a lot of professional development. I have one third of the board going to the national meeting this year, and that is hats off to them–no Stetson pun intended–for recognizing how much they could learn to improve and govern the university. Nobody ever sees, but I am so proud of them for it.

What are some of your broad goals for the university that may not necessarily appear on the strategic map?

They really are on the map because we’ve had so many opportunities to tweak it and dream about what we want to be. This is a university that has traditionally had a social conscience and a social heart, and so it’s important that we never lose that while we’re defining a plan. So there are multiple thought processes behind it. An example would be when we talk about ‘complex challenges,’ that we remember it isn’t just business challenges; it’s challenges as well in the world of music. How do you continue to have a vibrant symphony when the people who have subscriptions are starting to age? And how do you integrate music into people’s lives? There’s lots of ways that you can read all of this [the map]through the social lens that the university has. And it’s important to me that we never lose that glue that holds our three values together: the values of personal growth, intellectual development and global engagement are held together with personal and social responsibility. And while that’s not strictly on the map, it undergirds who we are. We need to make sure over the next decade that the people who work here and our students feel that they’re always part of the institution.

Photo by: Sammy Ollila

Photo by: Sammy Ollila