With Retirement Ahead, Dr. Stephens Reflects on Legacy
After 11 years as South Florida State College’s president and 45 years as an educator and college administrator, Dr. Norman L. Stephens Jr. retires on June 30, with a career to look back upon with pride and many interests to pursue in the future.
On Sept. 2, 2002, Dr. Stephens became the third president in SFSC’s history, succeeding Dr. Catherine P. Cornelius and Dr. William Stallard. He and his wife, Laurie, were excited to return to their home state, having spent more than a decade in Illinois and Michigan while he served as president of Lincoln Land Community College and the Auburn Hills Campus of Oakland Community College. “I graduated from Fort Lauderdale High School and the University of Florida, and previously worked at two colleges in our state,” Dr. Stephens said. “Florida is our home as it is for our four kids and many other family members. It was wonderful to be back among so many friends.”
Expecting to lead SFSC for at least 10 years and finish his career here, Dr. Stephens committed himself to continuing his predecessors’ legacies of excellence and stability. “The role of an effective college president is to create an environment and a culture where students and employees are empowered and highly motivated to learn,” he said. “This requires getting to know people at the college, creating an effective team, and developing positive relationships with our stakeholders throughout the district. Many projects and initiatives were already underway, and I brought a few ideas of my own.”
Dr. Stephens found SFSC to be unlike any of the other 27 colleges in the state college system, with its own unique needs and challenges. “SFSC is one of the most comprehensive in the state and relatively small compared to the others,” he said. “Our district is decidedly rural and geographically quite large. Imagine any small organization trying to be all things to many distinct clients and customers.” Financially, the district’s economy frequently magnifies that of the nation, creating challenges for providing programs and services during financially lean years. “When the economy is bad everywhere, it is really bad here,” he said. “More people come back to school, and this occurs when the state cannot afford to adequately fund the increasing enrollment. I’m proud of the way we managed these challenges during difficult times.”
Within his first year, Dr. Stephens presided over the opening of new campuses in DeSoto and Hardee counties, the SFSC Museum of Florida Art and Culture (MOFAC), and the Dental Education Center. New construction and improved facilities flourished during his tenure, benefiting academic programs, athletics, community education, and administrative support. In 2007, artist and SFSC alumnus Keith Goodson created the Tower of Enlightenment, a mural that depicted various aspects of the college’s mission, with input from Dr. Stephens, SFSC students, and others. Due to the opening of the Dr. Norman L. Stephens Jr. Health and Science Education Center in 2008, the college expanded its nursing program, began offering a radiography program, and created new state-of-the-art science laboratories. In 2009, overall improvements were made to the Lake Placid Center, including the construction of new science labs. The next year, the college’s 30-year-old auditorium on the Highlands Campus reopened as the opulent SFSC Theatre for the Performing Arts. The Panther Activity Center, Game Pad, and Panther Cove Park were created to give students places to relax and socialize.
One of Dr. Stephens’ goals – to expand the use of technology – was realized at all college locations, which enhanced student learning, expedited business transactions, and facilitated the collection of data for measuring the college’s effectiveness. The college’s website was redesigned to simplify the process of applying for admission and financial aid and to help students view class schedules, register for classes, and make payments online. Every campus and center received new Smart podiums and student response systems to make classroom learning more engaging, while nursing students began using High-Fidelity Human Patient Simulation technology to practice their clinical skills. Technology programs were reorganized under a chief information officer, and the college implemented Panther Central, a Luminis intranet portal, as a single entry point for its electronic services. The number of Web-based courses also expanded significantly under Dr. Stephens’ tenure.
At the same time, the college increased its educational programs and student success initiatives. The Tutoring and Learning Center was created to provide students with tutoring and access to computers, and the Career Center was expanded to offer greater accessibility to its services, including opportunities for students to learn in the workplace. The SFSC University Center experienced significant growth in the number of bachelor’s and master’s degrees it offered and saw its enrollment grow from 36 students to nearly 360. In 2003, SFSC and the Heartland Workforce Investment Board partnered to launch Panther Youth Partners, which helps disadvantaged youth complete their education and become employed. The Career Academy at South Florida State College was developed in conjunction with the Highlands County School District, making it possible for 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students to attend required high school courses and select college technical courses on the Highlands Campus. The STEP Up Learning Community was created to place students with similar needs in a cohort for two terms and allows them to complete all of their developmental courses in nine months. “Our mission statement speaks to developing human potential, and that is what we are about,” Dr. Stephens said.
But the icing on the cake came in 2011, when the Southern Association of Community Colleges and Schools (SACS) reaffirmed the college’s accreditation for 10 years – with no recommendations. One year later and again with no recommendations, SACS approved the college’s level change, giving it the ability to offer bachelor’s degree programs and prompting the community college to change its name to South Florida State College. “That was just magical,” Dr. Stephens said. “That almost never happens, but we did it. Additionally, we have worked to acquire national program accreditation for nearly all of our career programs, which is great news for our students. And routinely, nearly 100 percent of our students achieve industry certification. I am proud of this record.”
To foster dialogue and forge partnerships with the community, Dr. Stephens served on the boards of numerous state and local groups, including the SFSC Foundation, Inc., Florida Chamber of Commerce Board of Governors, the Economic Development Commission and Industrial Development Authority of Highlands County, Heartland Workforce, United Way of Central Florida, and the Florida Association of Colleges and Universities. He chaired the boards of the Sebring Chamber of Commerce, Junior Achievement, Florida College Risk Management Consortium, and the Florida Hospital, Heartland Division, Foundation. He is a mentor for Take Stock in Children and chairs its Leadership Council. He is a professional member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Phi Delta Kappa, International.
Looking to the future, Dr. Stephens is confident the college will continue its mission of responding to the changing needs of its community. “There is no limit to our ability to learn,” he said. “As an institution, we embrace this principle of lifelong learning.” As for his own future, he plans to travel, play his alto saxophone and possibly learn the piano, enjoy tennis and golf, and indulge his pleasure for reading about science and mathematical subjects. “There is no fear of retirement, whatsoever,” he said. “I look forward to seeing what’s around the bend.”
“It has been a most fulfilling experience to have served as the third president of South Florida State College,” Dr. Stephens reflected. “The students here are among the best I have ever had the pleasure of knowing in five colleges and three states. This speaks volumes for the people who live and work here. It is particularly heartwarming to be able to end my career in such a wonderful place after a remarkably gratifying professional experience.”