Gwendolyn Stephenson, Hillsborough Community College’s longest-serving president and a leader credited with bringing stability to an institution mired in turmoil, died Thursday after a two-year battle with cancer.
Stephenson, 69, served as HCC president from 1997 to 2010. Under her leadership, the college opened SouthShore, its fifth campus in Ruskin; created over 170 new academic programs; and opened Hawks Landing, the college’s 420-bed student apartment complex at the Dale Mabry campus.
“Dr. Stephenson brought extraordinary leadership and thoughtful guidance to HCC and propelled the college into becoming one of the most admired and respected community colleges in the country,” said Ken Atwater, who succeeded her as president of HCC.
“Her strong sense of fairness and ethics, and her unwavering commitment to excellence, transformed this institution and made it the pillar of quality education that it is today.”
Her greatest accomplishment may simply be righting a severely listing ship.
In the 1990s, auditors slammed lavish and questionable spending at the college, including stays at the posh Don CeSar hotel in St. Pete Beach and expensive gifts for employees reaching milestone anniversaries.
A generous sick-leave policy left a $6 million debt as workers hoarded sick days. And administrators earned tens of thousands of dollars in a program that paid them not to teach classes.
Teachers and employees complained of poor morale and racial tension.
After the HCC Board of Trustees’ failed in an attempt to fire embattled president Andreas Paloumpis, he eventually resigned, paving the way for Stephenson’s hiring from her chancellor’s position at St. Louis Community College.
“She did a wonderful job in some very difficult times, and she’s absolutely going to be missed,” said Thomas Huggins, a Tampa business consultant who served as chairman of the Board of Trustees during Stephenson’s tenure.
“She was the ultimate professional. She transformed Hillsborough Community College into the college that it is today, to a point where it’s highly recognized both nationally and internationally.”
Stephenson drew come criticism, too, during her tenure.
She pursued an ambitious plan for a sports medicine complex at the Dale Mabry campus that was pushed by a developer who had overstated his credentials; the project eventually fizzled. And a plan to rebuild roadways at the expense of the city tennis complex at the site was eventually abandoned.
Carl Kuttler, who was Stephenson’s counterpart as president at St. Petersburg College, recalled working closely with her, particularly after HCC received re-accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Kuttler said he sent a team of administrators to HCC to learn from Stephenson how she did it, and SPC also received the accreditation.
“I had a lot of respect for her,” said Kuttler, now retired. “We always had a very professional relationship. We could just pick up the phone if there was a problem.”
Stephenson died in a hospice in Temple Terrace.
She is survived by her husband, Steve Stephenson; son, Jason; daughter, Marion Smith; and two grandchildren.
A memorial will be held later this summer. The family asked that gifts in Stephenson’s memory be made to the HCC Foundation in support of the Dr. Gwendolyn Stephenson Endowment.